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The companies trying to crowdsource sustainable innovations

Sustainable Shower

Unilever has lauched a competition to design the world’s most sustainable shower, but is the €5,000 prize fair? Photograph: Bazuki Muhammad/REUTERS


Powered by article titled “The companies trying to crowdsource sustainable innovations” was written by Tim Smedley, for on Thursday 29th August 2013 17.11 UTC

You know what it’s like. You wait ages for a crowdsourced sustainable water innovation competition, and then two come along at once. Danish utility company Aarhus Water has an open call for ideas to redesign its Egaa wastewater treatment plant. And Unilever is running a competition to design the sustainable shower of the future.

Both competitions stem from the same frustration: a step change is needed in sustainable innovation, and it’s not coming from the traditional marketplace. Rather than calling for designs for the whole process, the Aarhus Water competition (which closes on 4 October) is divided into four challenges – carbon harvesting, biogas production, energy consumption and smarter energy utilisation – that people can tackle separately without any specific knowledge of wastewater treatment plants (WWTP).

“The whole idea is to take a very complex problem, chop it up into lots of small encircled problems, and allow people from the outside to contribute”, explains Mikkel Thomassen, director of the Danish company Smith Innovation, contracted by Aarhus Water to run the crowdsourcing phase. “We only have a limited number of firms working within the [WWTP] area – although they are highly qualified, they do things in a certain way … If you want to more fundamentally rethink how we do this kind of plant, we need inspiration from outside.”

Thomassen expects entrants will have existing expertise due to the highly specific nature of the challenges, but the pool for that expertise can be considerably widened by crowdsourcing: “For example bio-gas or filter purification technologies – these are used in many different industries, the dairy industry, processing, and we hope to be able to persuade companies, researchers or individuals working in these sectors to put forward their ideas”. A fifth call for entries simply called “surprise us” also allows for ideas from virtually anyone.

Thomassen admits, “An open innovation campaign is not very costly economically but there is a cost in a sense that you give up a lot of control – I don’t know whether we will receive two ideas or 200.”

Unilever meanwhile has teamed up with crowdsourcing community eYeka, offering €5,000 (£4,265) for the best sustainable shower design (competition closes on 8 September). Unilever is not a manufacturer of showers, but targets under its sustainable living plan call for a 50% reduction in its water use by 2020, taking responsibility for the whole lifecycle of products, which for Unilever includes shampoo. Michiel Leijnse, water and innovation brand director for Unilever, explains, “a typical shower in the UK uses 62 litres of water, in the US it’s upwards of 100. We think there must be better, more efficient, ways of getting clean … and we haven’t found them within the mainstream manufacturers so far”.

Unilever has really embraced crowdsourcing, having already announced an ongoing partnership with eYeka to develop ideas for Unilever brands. An open innovation section on the Unilever website also allows people to submit ideas for Unilever products or respond to a specific list of wants – at the time of going to press, examples included “toothpaste that amazes your mouth”. What happens to these product ideas once submitted however, is less clear.

The specific ownership rights of crowdsourced ideas can also vary. In eYeka’s terms and conditions, it reads: “winners whose submissions are selected as selection of the jury undertake to assign to the company the intellectual property rights in these submissions.” Unilever says this is standard across such crowdsourcing platforms.

In the context of potentially designing the world’s most sustainable shower, €5,000 seems little recompense. Asked if this is a potential flaw in the crowdsourcing model, Leijnse says it’s a fair concern, “but at the same time having an idea is one thing, bringing it to market is another … if we can work with them it would lead to a different arrangement than if they just had an idea and couldn’t take it further.” The volume of entries to the shower competition is also such that, he says: “I don’t think it’s putting people off”.

The Aarhus Water competition doesn’t involve a cash prize, but Thomassen insists that the winners “would have the rights of ownership and Aarhus Water would [only] have the right to use it in this particular building project.” However he also argues that seeing a product or solution realised is an even bigger motivator than money. “In theory you could come up with some conflicts as you mention – should I give away my ideas for free … But in reality these conflicts of interest are much more limited than is often assumed … they receive the opportunity to be part of the ongoing building project, to have an idea realised in a specific project.”

Also the urgent need for sustainability solutions may prove a bigger driver than in more commercial fields. The potential water savings to come from showers, given that they account for a third of current domestic water use in the west, is huge. Aarhus Water want to maximise the production of energy and reduce the energy consumption at Egaa, so that the net energy-production exceeds 150%. Existing technologies could achieve 75%, says Thomassen, and only theoretically.

“In general I don’t think the construction industry is very concerned in doing big R&D projects, they don’t have the time horizon for that”, says Thomassen. “To be able to do this open ideas phase and still be able to build within budget and an ordinary time-frame of one or two years – if we succeed in doing that it will be a big thing.”

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