3 Lessons in Successful Crowdsolving

Sun Catcher’ by Max Rymsha of Ukraine.

Connecting with Innovators in 20+ Countries to Design Solutions for Rural New Brunswick

The idea of the internet as a place for accelerated global community-building always rang a bit hollow for me.

Until the evening of February 15th, 2014 when my inbox was flooded with messages from strangers in Paris, Timișoara, Tokyo, Italy, China and a dozen other countries.
Two years later I’ve seen this repeated and now recognize some lessons in crowdsolving — bringing people together from all around the world to solve common challenges.

I want to share what I’ve learned here, and explain exactly why my inbox exploded that night, but first I’ll provide some context. (Just skip this next section if you want to cut straight to the lessons)

Community Forests International

CFI’s low-tech community nurseries grow +200,000 trees per year. Photo: Jeff Schnurr

I work at a small environmental group based in New Brunswick, Canada called Community Forests International (Forests intl.). My friends and I founded the company with a simple if somewhat unconventional mission: support communities on a tiny island in Zanzibar, Tanzania to restore their lost forests (a whole other story).

We’re still doing that today — 1.5 million trees and counting — but have since broadened our scope. Rainwater harvesting, solar micro-grids, regenerative agriculture; alongside our Tanzania partners we practice what is referred to in the sector as ‘climate change adaptation’.

Most recently our team started zeroing in on challenges closer to home in Canada as well. We run a 700 acre certified organic farm and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) woodlot in the province of New Brunswick, and are developing the site into a hacker space for specifically rural innovation.

We built a prototype facility in Zanzibar, Tanzania a few years ago and the model has been working so well there that we decided to replicate it.

Whaelghinbran Farm — New Brunswick, Canada. Site of CFI’s fledgling Rural Innovation Campus.

In short, a Rural Innovation Campus is a place to demonstrate adaptive approaches to traditional country work like forestry and farming — but also a place to experiment with new technologies or new enterprise models that meet the emerging opportunities of rural life.

Usually it’s the urban sphere that gets all the attention when it comes to innovation, adaptation, and business creation around the world — we’re hoping to change that.

When Your Backyard is the Internet

So back in January 2014 we put out a call for help designing a tiny backwoods cabin for our fledgling Canada campus; some inspired accommodation for future ‘Innovators In-Residence’. With no clue how to run an architecture competition I neglected to include registration details. That meant there was no way to gauge just how much interest we had generated until after the competition closed.

In the eleventh hour, when designs started pouring in from all over the world, it was both a shock and a bit of a revelation. People around the globe were inspired by our work— a lot of people — and were putting forward their time and creative energy to help us find a solution.

To assure you this was not just a one-off fluke, we did it again last month. We put out a second call for designs, for our next building project, and this time engagement was even stronger. Designs came in from Syria, Singapore, Russia, Germany, Indonesia, etc. Our 2016 Creative Commons gallery (62 shelter designs for low-carbon rural living) includes open-source work from over 20 countries.

Embers’ by Milind Goel of Tokyo (construction detail).

Needless to say the quality of solutions generated by a global community of crowdsolvers far exceeds what our small organization could produce going it alone. For me this demonstrates the real potential for using the internet to build community around shared challenges.

We can solve problems together — no matter where we are on this planet. Below are some tips for pulling together your own community of crowdsolvers.

3 Lessons in Successful Crowdsolving


- Choose the Right Channels (know your allies) -

The first step to building a community of crowdsolvers is making sure that your voice, your call to co-create, reaches the right people. This all comes down to choosing the right channels of communication.

The reason designers in over 20 countries know about our project in the first place is because we broadcast our signal using outlets they are already tapped into. Online platforms where practitioners gather — websites like Bustler and Archdaily — give us access to a community of people with the right skills and passions aligned with our cause.

And this engagement costs us virtually nothing, because what we provide is something those platforms and their communities find fundamentally valuable (next lesson).

To sum up:

Make use of the platforms and channels that already exist for the express purpose of amplifying your unique message. This will require some research, but it will pay you back in spades.

n.b. Sometimes ‘research’ is just talking to a friend in the know. We identified our best signal amplifiers by asking a couple of our architect friends where they go to browse competitions.


- Recognize, Create, and Share Value -

Taken at face value you might think the reason so many people participate in our design challenges is because we offer a $1,000 prize. But get this — the top designers keep giving their prize back! This generosity reflects a sentiment echoed across the community of crowdsolvers we work with. The real value being created here is deeper than money.

Of all the reasons designers give for participating, there are two that top the list every time. The most important and most compelling is the chance to see one’s creative work made real. We build the winning design, and our students and guests experience it. Is it any wonder this is the best reward possible?

Hytta’ by Caroline Mellberg and Laurina C. Felius.

For most people money isn’t an end in itself after all, it’s just a means to do the things we really care about. In our experience, what designers really care about — what motivates them more than money — is the act of creating architecture that both meets people’s needs and inspires.

The second big motivator is the desire to share one’s creative work with peers and the wider world. It’s about being a part of a global conversation. Through our open design challenge and Creative Commons arena we hold the space for designers to put forward their ideas — to be seen and to be heard.

To sum up:

When it comes to striking a chord in today’s raucous age — whether you’re crowdsolving or just plain communicating — there is nothing more effective than aligning values and holding space for people to co-create.


- Constraints are good, but don’t be too prescriptive -

Whether constraints limit or inspire innovation is endlessly debated — and like most things the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

As a facilitator you’re tasked with striking that balance. Define the end goal of your crowdsolving mission clear enough so that everyone starts on the same page. But be permissive as possible when it comes to defining solutions.

In our first ‘backwoods cabin of the future’ challenge we called for something less than 184 sq. ft. in size that would accommodate two people and cost less than $10,000 to build. The rest we left up to designers.

Photos: Zach Melanson

The result was a novel solution — the Nomadic Cabin —that achieved all our goals and delivered the added advantage of portability. This unanticipated innovation, which gave us flexibility to build offsite and relocate as needed, ended up having immense value to our project.

To sum up:

Crowdsolving is by definition an expansive process shaped by the diversity of its players. Constraints can inspire creativity, but being overly prescriptive can stifle real innovation.

Foster a solution-focused approach that begins with a shared goal but then builds out towards multiple answers via multiple pathways. That’s how crowdsolving can lead to answers we don’t even know are possible.

Thanks for reading. Please share! And if you’d like to learn more about Community Forests International’s work, you can visit us at: www.forestsinternational.org