Research & Innovation

Why the Next Big Ideas Might Come From… All of Us

Stevens Associate Dean explores the remarkable problem-solving power of combining experts with the crowd

Professor & Associate Dean Jeff Nickerson

Is sharing ideas good for innovation? Can we intelligently recombine others' discoveries with our own insights, to create the best possible solutions? Can experts and novices work together productively?

If Stevens Institute of Technology business professor and Associate Dean of Research Jeff Nickerson's investigations are correct, the answer to all three questions may be yes — and may have a profound effect on the future of design, manufacturing and supply chains.

Remixing good ideas into new innovations

Nickerson, who holds both a doctorate in computer science and a master's in graphic design, previously worked for AT&T in fingerprint image-processing, on Wall Street in programmatic trading and as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies.

At Stevens, his work — supported by several National Science Foundation awards to date — explores the synergy that can occur when experts and creative non-professional collaborate to solve problems in more powerful ways. It's a relationship that increasing numbers of corporate entities are turning toward in their efforts to innovate and succeed.

"Some people think creativity is individual; others say small groups can accomplish tremendous creativity, such as occurs on teams within companies," says Nickerson. "But we're interested in what happens when you collect a number of creative people, participating in something together, that aren't necessarily part of one company and perhaps don't even know each other."

Surprising insights, he discovered, frequently arise from combinations of experts and less-experienced participants with novel perspectives. And much in the way the openness of open-source software has transformed IT and devices, open innovation could be the next explosive trend in business thinking.

For one study, Nickerson and colleagues examined Thingiverse, an open-source sharing platform for designs used to 3D-print objects. Thingiverse's introduction of metamodels — interfaces that allow users to modify shape parameters — led to an explosion of new designs.

Nickerson wanted to know why.

After analyzing a 40,000-by-40,000 item distance matrix of Thingiverse objects, Nickerson's team concluded that significant modification, remixing and recombination of ideas was taking place — in effect, collective innovation emerging from the actions of individuals.

That research could have profound implications for corporate R&D.

"Instead of just building a larger R&D division, companies are beginning to understand that by involving people outside the organization with different perspectives, the novelty of ideas can be increased," explains Nickerson. "And companies can keep their own R&D leaner, focused on inventions and methods that are mission-critical.

"This research supports and strengthens that notion by suggesting ways to involve a range of experts and novices."

Collaboration with MIT, Carnegie Mellon

Nickerson also spent a recent sabbatical at the Sloan School of Management at MIT, where he drew similar conclusions about the power of sharing ideas.

At MIT, Nickerson collaborated on an NSF-funded project led by Thomas Malone and including a team of investigators from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and Stevens. An online community was encouraged to address a large-scale societal problem: energy sustainability. The contest's rules were designed to reward not only the best-overall solutions to the problem with cash prizes, but also those creators whose ideas were used in the construction of winning solutions.

"These contests demonstrate you can use online communities to recombine texts," he notes, "the same way the studies of 3D printing show communities can recombine shapes."