Crowdsourcing and the Smart Grid: GE’s $200 million Innovation Experiment

I’m watching with interest as crowdsourcing becomes more popular. My own personal intuition has served me well so far in life, and some (like my analytical engineer husband) might even argue I’m an intuition-based decision-maker. Crowdsourcing feels to me like group intuition, and I like to think it validates my ways (ok, just humor me.)  But even more interesting to me than the crowdsourcing aspect of the GE Ecoimagination Challenge was the absolute validation of the importance of the smart grid conversation and developments that came about with the contest.

The “Innovation Experiment”

The company’s $200 million “innovation experiment” invited businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and students to share ideas on how best to build the next-generation power grid. According to GE’s website, the Ecomagination Challenge focused on “finding new and more intelligent grid technologies and processes, as well as better business models.” GE received more than 3800 ideas and nearly 80,000 comments and votes.

It’s certainly a big deal that GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt was on hand for the announcement of winners on November 16th, but it’s the Ecomagination Challenge’s partnerships with four venture capital firms—Foundation Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Rockport Capital and Emerald Technology Ventures—that gives the contest real clout. Between them, these four firms have helped launch dozens of companies that currently operate in the IT, cyber-security, smart grid and mobile space.

The Implications for the Sustainability Industry

From a sustainability perspective, this is where it all comes together and is, quite frankly, what sustainability is all about – new ideas promoting new ways of sustainable living . Just three years ago, who was even talking about the “smart grid?” Not very many people, I can tell you that. Now the word is almost main stream. The market opportunity for sustainable products and systems is opening new doors. Several years ago, we at AT&T saw the opportunity to apply what we do best – two-way communications – to a whole new area, and we jumped into the smart grid world.

The new sustainability products coming about aren’t just smart grid related. Fleet telematics, Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, and all kinds of other machine to machine (M2M) technologies are allowing us to operate in more efficient ways using less natural resources and increasing productivity. Even at a personal level, I can say my own actions have become more sustainable as I use my smartphone to find directions in lieu of printing them out, as I pay my bills without using any paper, and as the fridge refills itself with milk… oh, wait… that one hasn’t happened yet!

Winning Ideas

The ideas deemed $100,000 winners by the GE Ecoimagination Challenge’s judges included the development of an anti-icing technology for wind turbines, intelligent water meters (where the water powers the meters), more secure communications technology for the smart grid, rotors and turbines made out of light cloth, and a method of controlling the power quality in the grid. Another interesting sustainable idea that came out of the Ecoimagination project was to make roads out of recyclable solar panels. That project won the $50,000 Community Award, a separate award given to the idea that garnered the most number of votes from the Ecochallenge community.

Showing that creativity begets creativity, the challenge spawned “sub-challenges” at places like M.I.T., where students submitted more than 100 ideas and school officials chose one to enter in the GE contest. M.I.T. also awarded $25,000 to the winning student entry—which proposed the construction and management of a solar-powered processor to convert waste vegetable oil to biodiesel.

Commenting on the contest earlier this year, Immelt said, it “allows us to increase innovation. It allows us to accelerate new ideas.” While it’s interesting to hear the winning ideas, I’m also interested in gaining insight from GE about its use of crowdsourcing.

If your organization has any takeaways from doing something similar, I’d love to hear about them.
Beth Shiroishi Citizenship & Sustainability AVP AT&T About Beth