MIT’s Climate CoLab is a collaborative online community centered around a series of annual contests that seek out promising ideas for fighting climate change. Right now, 15 contests are active on the site, with more to come, Malone said.
Tapping the general population to generate ideas, gather information, and solve sticky problems is not a new concept. The fundamental principle behind Wikipedia, it has also inspired any number of open source software projects. The idea is simple: More people working on a challenge translates into more ideas, better ideas, and more diverse ideas, said Christian Terwiesch, professor of operations and information management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The way to get good ideas is to basically get thousands of ideas and kind of filter them down,” he said.
Adding a contest element, Terwiesch said, gives the crowd-sourcing process a level of legitimacy and helps motivate potential contributors. Perhaps the best-known contest is the X Prize, which gives awards for solving big problems such as space travel and artificial intelligence.
Businesses such as InnoCentive and TopCoder offer platforms that allow enterprises to run their own innovation contests. The US government has even gotten into the game. Challenge.gov lists contests sponsored by federal agencies, including calls to improve communications about geothermal energy and land-mine reporting.
What differentiates the Climate CoLab, Malone said, is that it is not limited to a single, narrowly-defined competition. Rather, it offers a portfolio of contests, each tackling one aspect of the multifaceted problem of climate change. These diverse categories include efforts focused on creating public demand for green buildings, cutting down on transportation emissions, reducing consumption of goods and services, and shifting cultural attitudes and norms.