Moonshots and masses

Someone recently described our idea – a think tank where the research is conducted by an online community of public service practitioners and service users – as being very “on trend, perhaps too on trend.” I wasn’t sure what the last bit meant (the conversation had moved on), but there’s certainly a lot of it about.

This week Google launched Solve for X, the somewhat funkily-named forum to “encourage and amplify… radical technology ideas for solving global problems.” ‘The site aims to incite ‘moonshot ideas.’ According to Google, “Moonshots live in the gray area between audacious projects and pure science fiction; they are 10x improvement, not 10%. That’s partly what makes them so exciting.”

The internet provides for openness of course, in this case that anyone can put forward an idea. As Google says, “Moonshots can come from anywhere – people of all ages and places, companies, academia, inspired experts, enthusiastic newcomers, and often from accidental discoveries.”

Solve for X follows InnoCentive and OpenIDEO and many others as platforms for big ideas. At the moment it’s not clear quite how open the Solve for X process actually is (there’s a bit of a sense of the ‘great and the good’ about the advertised contributors), but there’s another way in which this approach limits participation, which is in its focus.

Most of us aren’t leading scientists or technologists, or big thinkers in any kind of way really. It would be nice if a few big ideas (and thinkers) saved the world, but we can’t afford to wait until they do. The rest of us have lots of ‘little’ ideas – based on our own partial but important bits of expertise and experience – that can surely add up to something big. There’s at least two kinds of crowdsourcing, then: openly inviting big ideas from big thinkers; and inviting lots and lots of ideas from a much broader population. Both are valuable, but we’re in the latter camp.

Partly this is because we’re not Google, obviously. But it’s also because we’re sceptical of the big idea business, especially when it comes to public services. We’ve suggested before what the problem is with the search for ‘magic bullets‘ for social problems (and all problems can be seen as social problems). This is because social problems typically derive from a range of sources. There’s no single way to reduce poverty, improve health, cut crime or improve public services – either ideologically or practically. Moving away from a focus on ‘big fixes’ could open up many more possibilities, at both the level of ideas and action. We could also focus more on the difficult and less glamorous work of better implementing what we already know, so giving today’s (or yesterday’s) ideas more time to make an impact and improve people’s lives.

There’s a relationship between the methods and the social mentality that sits behind them. Google and others might not actually believe in ‘simple’ prescriptions to seemingly-intractable problems, but the big idea/big winner approach can imply this. The alternative to ‘big’ (money, initiatives and solutions) is ‘small’: local, diverse, pragmatic, and iterative. This doesn’t rule out being fashionable – the best trends in public service reform come from frontline practice – but it might help us avoid being fashion victims, since being ‘on trend’ can then take many forms depending on local need, context, and capacity (something I’ve called in the past ‘mass localism).’

As Google itself has argued, open will win. But couldn’t this also mean the more open, the better?

One Comment on “Moonshots and masses”

  1. Chris Sherwood says:

    The issue here isn’t big ideas, its implementation. Too often these big ideas fail in public services because little thought is given to how they are actually implemented.

    Services are fragmented / disjointed and incentives for collaboration are weak. Furthermore, policy makers lose interest and don’t give things enough time to bed down because they work to a political timeframe of a Cabinet Minister who wants to point to something during their 18 months in the job.

    We need better ideas where proper consideration is given to how they will actually be implemented!

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