In 2015, an overcrowded boat carrying a group of Syrian refugees capsized and sank off an island in Greece. At least 34 people, including 15 children, died in this accident alone. Coming atop of the heartbreaking image of a drowned Syrian toddler washed ashore a beach in Turkey , this news epitomized the scale and severity of the humanitarian disaster characterizing the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, a crisis that has already claimed almost three thousand lives.
When such a global crisis strikes, public reactions tend to fall into one of the following two categories. Indifference; many people feel as though it is not their responsibility to take action or provide aid to those who suffer in distant lands. However, as most Europeans now understand, we are all somehow connected on this little planet of ours and, therefore, one nation’s acute refugee problem soon turns out to be also the problem of other nations. The second category is compassion; these citizens pressure their governments to intervene and take measures to alleviate the suffering of the victims, and some follow up by donating funds and time to help directly. However is this enough? Are there other means that people from all over the world could offer to help solve the refugee crisis in Europe?
Maybe there is also a third option? Perhaps, we can start with helping our government officials answer a number of key questions. Has everything possible been done to foresee and stop this sequence of tragic events? Are we using every possible means to prevent these tragedies in the future? And, equally importantly, can we solely rely on the wisdom of the “usual suspects”–politicians and government experts–to deal with the current and future crises?
Given the scope of the problem and the urgency of the required response, the answer to the last question is most likely no. Extraordinary situations call for unorthodox solutions. It’s therefore time to turn to another source of wisdom: the wisdom of crowds. It’s time to realize the power an open innovation challenge methodology – specifically one that involves crowdsourcing – can have when it comes to affecting real change.
Adopting business approaches to fight global crises
There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Our governments can–and must!–adopt techniques and methodologies that have long been used in the world of business. Facing constant turmoil in the world markets (essentially being in the state of a perpetuate crisis), leading world companies learned how to rapidly adjust to ever changing business conditions by tapping on the collective wisdom of their employees. By following a structured, systematic idea management process, corporations use the collective mind of their own people to design new improved technologies, products and services, to continue improve processes, optimize operations and cut costs.
Exactly the same approach can be used by the world governments, which are currently facing two major tasks. Firstly, they must deal with the short-term consequences of the crisis, such as the cost and logistical nightmare of settling hundreds of thousands of migrants. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, they have to start looking for long-term solutions to prevent future refugee crises from happening; an intrinsic part of this process should be creating a system capable of reliably predicting when and where the next refugee emergency will take place. On both fronts, crowdsourcing–tapping on the collective wisdom of people in Europe and the rest of the world–can become a valuable source of ideas and solutions.
Using prediction markets to forecast future crises
Two forms of crowdsourcing approaches seem particularly relevant in this context. The first is the so-called prediction markets, the stock-exchange-like platforms aimed at predicting the probability of events by assigning a market value to each prediction. Corporations are using prediction markets to forecast success rates of future products and estimate sales or manufacturing capacities. Similar prediction market can be used to monitor the humanitarian situation around the globe (including the Middle East) by assessing the probability of a refugee crisis in any country of concern at any given point of time. A special task force could be created to run such a prediction market–polling crowds of global experts from relevant fields along with ordinary citizens on the ground–and then issue alerts to government officials should a critical trend emerge. Software for running and managing prediction markets in the corporate setting is commercially available and can easily be modified for this particular purpose.
Using idea management to deal with the consequences of crisis situations
Another approach would be using the wisdom of crowds to come up with a set of measures for dealing with the current refugee crisis and preventing future ones. Currently, the only “platform” for public exchange of ideas and opinions is provided by social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter. However, these platforms are ill-suited for dealing with specific problems; besides, there is always a danger that potentially useful ideas will be buried under the weight of random “noise” (or, worse, shouted down on purpose by special interests).
In contrast, the use of idea management platforms (supported by commercially available idea management software) allows corporations to collect all potentially valuable ideas from their employees, while overcoming the traditional politics, hierarchy and geographic barriers. Open innovation challenge platforms can also prove invaluable for harnessing ideas and insights from external sources to develop viable solutions to corporate or governmental challenges
European citizens should also be invited to share their wisdom on every aspect of the current refugee crisis, including country quotas for refugee redistribution, on-the-ground logistics of settling the newcomers and the difficult cultural issues related to their assimilation. Appropriate open idea management platforms can be employed to generate ideas, develop them through collaboration, and then evaluate the best proposals through crowd voting to identify the ones with the highest public support.
The last feature, the voting capacity of idea management software, might be especially relevant in this particular case, as many people across Europe feel that they are one way or another being misrepresented by the actions of their governments. They demand that only actions which fully reflect public consensus on an issue be implemented now and in the future. Speaking in more broad terms, the voting capacity of idea management software may pave the way to a bona fide digital democracy.
Can open innovation challenge methods solve the world’s most pressing problems?
Crowdsourcing has already proven its ability to address difficult challenges, such as getting to the roots of common diseases or helping victims of violence in Africa. Admittedly, using this method to solve more complex socioeconomic problems, in a rapid and effective way, will be much more difficult: one has only to remember the largely unsuccessful BP’s oil spill crowdsourcing campaign to deal with the consequences of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster. Yet, examples of skillful application of crowdsourcing grow in numbers too, as witnessed by the recent public campaign to conquer the Ebola outbreak. There is every reason to believe that if applied properly, crowdsourcing will help solve the current refugee crises in Europe too.
What do you think about using crowdsourcing to solve complex socioeconomic and political problems? Do you have any specific ideas that could help ease the current refuse crisis in Europe?
Eugene Ivanov – the author is an innovation management consultant who helps organizations design and then implement internal & external innovation programs. He is an expert at selecting and redefining R&D problems which can be solved successfully by using crowdsourcing. Eugene writes at the Innovation Observer website and his tweets can be found at @eugeneivanov101.
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