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Fast ideas

There is huge interest around the world in new tools for speeding up the generation and development of ideas.

Many of them are in use in and around Nesta, including crowdsourcing, design methods and collaboration platforms of all kinds.

Quite a few try to systematise the stages by which ideas become more precise, more workable and then grow, and I'm one of many people who have designed tools to nurture ideas from fragmentary ideas through prototypes to business models and scale. 

I'm convinced that parts of this process can be made more systematic and taught.  But certainly not all; and every method brings with it important challenges and tradeoffs.

This matters greatly for Nesta because one of our options for the future is to become much more explicitly a vehicle for helping people turn ideas into impact - whether they are inventors, creative artists, public officials or charities.

Here are a few of the important choices and issues that any method faces:

How Open and How Closed? 

Some people will be willing to make their ideas very visible to others at an early stage. But others with good reason want to keep a degree of secrecy. There may be a valuable IP to protect; they may not want to alert competitors or incumbents; and they may want to develop the idea in privacy.

Any platform which insists on too much openness may miss out on really radical ideas.

Who to Involve? 

The ‘wisdom of crowds’ argument implies that the more people can see, comment on and contribute to an idea, the better it will become. 

However, experience suggests that this isn't quite right. Often what works much better are smaller groups of specialists refining an idea.

Many very open platforms end up with huge numbers of banal or uninteresting ideas.

How Much to Incentivise? 

Will people only develop ideas if there is a clear financial incentive for them?

The great majority of evidence suggests that this is wrong. Incentives have some effect, but it's marginal.

More important is recognition. But getting the right mix of rewards clearly matters a lot.

The Best People with the Best Ideas? 

The premise of some models of entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship is that the best people will have the best ideas: back the people and their ideas will change the world.

But there is only a loose correlation between the quality of talent and the quality of ideas. Often an idea will thrive best if it's taken forward by someone other than its inventor. And often innovators need to be weaned off their favourite ideas and encouraged to adopt better ones. 

This is why intermediaries play such an important, and often subtle, role which mixes coaching, support and challenge. It remains unclear whether any of the online platforms can do this.

How Generalist? 

Will the most successful ideas platforms cover everything or will they be dedicated to specific fields?

We're approached fairly regularly by organisations aspiring to be dominant creative platforms - Googles or Facebooks for creativity. None of them yet have a compelling offering. And it's not at all obvious that a monopoly platform would be a good thing or viable. 

My guess is that most people involved in ideas are inherently distrustful of monopolies - a messy ecology of competing platforms is much more likely than one dominant one.

How Pure? 

Most really good ideas start off at best half-baked.

The models of crowdsourcing that seem to be working best either have very well defined problems and solutions, or else have multiple stages to help turn half formed ideas into more useful ones. 

Many of the best ideas are hybrids and syntheses, but bringing the right mix of elements together turns out to depend on teams with deep knowledge, not just eureka moments.

A Continuing Process

Exploring what works best in accelerating ideas is going to be a running theme for us - it's a field where there are many claims, but not all that much evidence, so watch this space.

Author

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan has been Chief Executive of Nesta since 2011. Nesta is the UK's innovation foundation and runs a wide range of activities in investment, practical innovation and research.

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