Crowdsourcing, Open Innovation, and the Future of Sustainable Cities

The idea of fixing Detroit—or any other city in desperate need of revitalization—is overwhelming, to say the least. And legions have tried, with various levels of success.

What if you could harness the best and brightest ideas from around the world?

That was the mission of a recent crowdsourcing exercise put forth by IDEO, the iconic design firm, and Steelcase, the Michigan-based producer of workplace furnishings and solutions. By itself, it is simply one inspiring story, but it's also a prototype for all that’s possible in creating a more sustainable world.

In 2010, IDEO created an online platform called OpenIDEO to help solve pressing societal challenges by engaging the masses. It’s certainly not the first effort in crowdsourcing, but it is one of the more ambitious and open platforms aimed at fostering sustainability solutions. Over the past year or so, the company has partnered with a number of nonprofits and for-profits, including Amnesty International (human rights), Oxfam (maternal health), and celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver (childhood nutrition).

More recently, Steelcase, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., sponsored a challenge near and dear to the heart of its President and CEO, James P. Hackett: to help cities like Detroit find their way back from the brink. Hackett is part of a group of Michigan CEOs seeking to revitalize the state, which has been hammered by the loss of manufacturing jobs, automotive and others.

The challenge asked, “How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?” The response to the challenge was overwhelming.