GE's Ecomagination Challenge: Crowdsourcing, time and paring eco-ideas

General Electric's Ecomagination challenge has garnered a bevy of good eco-ideas worth funding. The exercise is also an instructive lesson on innovating via crowdsourcing.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

General Electric's Ecomagination Challenge -- a $200 million contest to find the best sustainability ideas -- has racked up some strong numbers, and with 10 days to go, a bevy of ideas has already bubbled up to the top.

The exercise, designed to round up ideas focused on renewables, grid efficiency and eco-friendly homes and buildings, kicked off July 13. (It ends Sept. 30.) It's also an instructive exercise on using crowdsourcing as an innovation tool.

The challenge is worth checking out given that there are 2,174 ideas thus far (and counting). GE's challenge site has more than 38,000 users competing for $200 million in funding from the company as well as venture capital partners.

The big question: How do you pare all those ideas down? GE appears to be relying on user votes and a little visualization:

Among the big ideas that are winning over the crowd (based on GE's visualization model as one way to navigate the various ideas):

  • HomeSideKick, a collection of intelligent adaptors, switches and sensors. The general idea is that these units will interact with smart meters to provide dashboards on energy efficiency. It's an easy concept that could be implemented quickly.
  • Solar Roadways, a concept that revolves around retrofitting roads and parking lots with recyclable solar panels you can drive over. A Top 5 idea in GE's challenge.
  • Welectricity, a peer pressure social network that promotes energy efficiency. Be the best energy consumer on your block.
  • E.G.G., an electric generator powered by garlic vegetable. In a nutshell, a container with grinded pure garlic is sealed to create fuel. This pick was made just to see how this pup would work.
  • Piezoelectricity, a phenomenon presented by certain crystals when subjected to mechanical stress acquire an electric polarization. In layman's terms, the big idea here is to put these piezoelectric panels on the floor and have people walk over them to create electricity. Combine this with the solar roads and we may have something.

Other fine ideas revolve around wind power, electric car chargers and using power how and when it's generated.

For my money -- actually, GE's -- I have to go with the solar roadways, with a dash of piezoelectricity out of the ideas early in the challenge. If we can take all of the world's roadways and walkways and create energy, we can generate a lot of power.

If you play around with GE's visualization tools you find that most of the best ideas -- based on crowd voting-- all landed before August. You can spend days clicking on various dots in the GE idea universe.

The exercise highlights a few points:

  • Crowdsourcing may be hampered as a function of time. Early ideas garner the votes and then cruise to a win.
  • Data management: if you crowdsource at scale, can it become an issue?
  • Crowdsourcing works. There are a lot of great ideas out there, and the model -- with funding as a carrot -- works well.

But given the time-crowdsourcing relationship, it's tempting to go with the late ideas (just to be a bit rebellious) or just start closing your eyes and clicking on small dots later in the idea cycle.

In the visualization tool, it's hard to miss a massive green dot for an idea that landed this month. The idea, currently ranked No. 1, revolves around an intelligent e-station for electric vehicles. The real win here is that this e-station is optimized for the current grid instead of some smart one that's coming in a few years. It's no wonder why the concept garnered a lot of votes in a short period of time.

That idea works well and should win. If electric vehicles can ramp up more quickly, perhaps they'll be driven on a few of those solar-powered roads.

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