You might have spotted the name Caldas on your last visit to your local coffee shop. It’s a mountainous region in Colombia, known as part of the ‘axis of coffee’. But perhaps less well known is its ageing population, poor literacy levels, a lot of malnutrition, and that about 70% of people there live in poverty, 25% in extreme poverty.

At IDEO, we think applying your creativity to different skill sets can do amazing things in places like Caldas, affect people lives, even save them. And how when you combine the collective creativity of communities you can achieve incredible impact. We’ve learnt that you can do that with the help of technology. Technology helps to remove the friction from the process of collaboration and creativity.

Six years ago this idea drove us to create an open innovation platform, OI Engine, to enable firms to tap into the creative potential of their employees and communities, and tackle problems big and small.

OI Engine platform

The platform enables you to engage your communities in challenges — structured problem solving using a human centred process. It’s all about exploring problems, sharing insights, ideas and creating impact.

In the case of Caldas, OpenIDEO (one of the platforms powered by the software and dedicated to solving social problems) ran a challenge sponsored by Grameen Creative Lab, a social business joint venture, about creating new social businesses to help alleviate some of the health issues poor people faced there.

The Caldas challenge lasted three months, and started with the initial research phase to understand the problem and context. People from Caldas shared examples of social businesses and also stories of life there. The next phase is the really creative bit: ideas. And the community came up with hundreds of ideas, building on each other’s and iterating them based on feedback. From creating a food subscription service to a mobile health training camp.

Sarah, who is from Washington DC, saw an insight shared by Anne-Laure about recognising that mothers in these communities are highly networked, and already provide informal healthcare. She thought, maybe if you could empower them, train them and make them resellers of basic health services and products you would be providing jobs and creating a lightweight health network at the same time. She was amongst the final chosen ideas from the challenge, along with Manesh, who had an idea about using SMS to educate pregnant mothers about what was happening to their baby and their bodies and to help connect them and schedule regular check ups.

We had wild hopes of government funding to help implement some of the ideas, but elections took place and we lost this opportunity. We didn’t hear about it until a year later, but without us knowing something incredible was happening.

A team of entrepreneurial doctors in Caldas saw Sarah and Manesh’s ideas from the challenge on the platform. Looking at these they realised it was a blueprint for alleviating the situation for the community of people where he lived. They piloted Sarah’s idea and another from the challenge. This gave them the creative confidence to create a social business called Bive, which is now delivering affordable healthcare to thousands of low and middle income communities in and around Caldas. Their goal is to help develop a healthy society by delivering a more efficient healthcare system based on promoting wellbeing and preventing disease.

Three years later, Bive has 10,000 patients and have spun out a second company, MAMI, an SMS service to help pregnant mothers receive advice, education, and access to healthcare.

Bive.co’s health service has a 98% patient satisfaction rating. The national health service rating is 64%.

What I love about this story is that Sarah, Manesh, and the other contributors had no idea that their ideas would lead to thousands of people’s health being improved. They spent in total probably a few hours, collectively the participants spent a few weeks of their lives, but in turn that effort led to thousands of lives, and hopefully more, being improved.

“You are encouraging people to act with OpenIDEO. Intrapreneurs have the awareness of problems but often don’t know how to act.” Jorge, Bive.co

Manesh and Sarah weren’t experts in medicine or development infrastructure, but through this process they found a way to create solutions that created real change.

If you’re looking for ways to tap into the power of your community, whether internally in your organisation or beyond it, here’s a few things that we’ve learnt that I hope are useful:

1. Take care framing the question

If you ask the wrong question you’re going to get the wrong answers. Agreement on the problem is key — it drives engagement and ultimately impact. We spend a long time just helping clients ask the right question. It’s the reason our platform starts with a research phase.

Inside this first phase you can ask your community to tackle missions — ways of probing deeper into the problem to understand the real opportunity areas. For instance, empowering people to interview another community members or colleague, looking for existing solutions that meet the need, or trying something new and reporting back on the lessons you’ve learnt.

2. Find your change makers

There’s an often overlooked place to find innovators. People on the edge of your community or organisation — sometimes we call these people front-line staff. That’s exactly what one of our clients does — they give all their cabin crew on board their planes access to OIEngine to provide insights and ideas to improve everything from passenger’s meals to how people can sleep better on their planes. In the first month this led to a 7% increase in their net promoter score, and has since reduced waste and saved money.

This organisations knows the power of tapping into the insight that their front-line staff are gathering and how it can generate the biggest change for their customer.

3. Foster Collaboration

Innovation doesn’t work so well alone, and collaboration is the key to better ideas. We created this little feature into OI Engine so you can build ideas together, on someone else’s contributions. By doing this you can effectively co-create whole solutions from hundreds of people. This is exactly whatHarvard Business School does with their OI Engine platform, which engages their alumni in challenges.

Clay Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma sponsored a challenge on their platform to crowdsource his next theory: The Capitalist’s Dilemma.

The result was an academic paper written in three months by 60 people rather than three years. This interactive tool visualises the collaboration across the challenge and how everyone’s participation created the final piece of work.

Recently Clay Christensen went on record publicly to say he’d ‘never produce an academic paper the old way again’.

4. Meet people where they are

Some people love using computers. Others prefer face to face. That’s normal — it’s human and we’re never going to change that. And that’s especially important to understand when you’re engaging people who have no access to a computer or broadband. This is something that OpenIDEO knows really well in their Amplify program: a collaboration between IDEO.org and the Department For International Development to help improve the world of international development and make it more collaborative, innovative and inclusive of the voice and needs of the real beneficiaries.

To do this they run challenges with on and offline support. In their latest challenge, which is focused on giving kids the best start in life in low-income communities, someone in a remote rural area or an urban slum can dial a free phone number and give their idea to the challenge in, say Swahili. That will be translated, added to the online platform, discussed online, which triggers a text message to the person who suggested it, so they can hear about the feedback on their phone.

With our corporate customers, this point is even more important. With people having busy day jobs, the last thing they need is another internal initiative to engage with.

Our clients are learning how to engage and encourage participation that becomes viral amongst employees by running in-person brainstormings, self-organised meetups, and utilising other face to face moments that make it really easy to get valuable insight, ideas, and even test out early business ideas.

5. Provide meaningful feedback

OI Engine’s Design Quotient, a measure of your participation in collaborative challenges.

Imagine you were Sarah, learning that your idea affected tens of thousands of people’s lives in Caldas. That’s incredible feedback. People who contribute need to know that their contribution — no matter how small — made a difference. It’s one of the reasons people participate. But there’s another reason. Learning. Everyone who participates in challenges on the platform builds up a profile, a bit like a portfolio of their activity. At the heart of it is something called their DQ or Design Quotient. This is a visualisation of their participation on challenges. It’s a great way of getting feedback, but when I spoke to a community member recently she told me she checks out other people’s DQs and skills to help find new collaborators to join her teams. She actually looks for those most dissimilar to her.

We’re learning about how the DQ can help overlay against traditional performance metrics.

Summary

We’re all creative — we’ve evolved that way. But the structures we work in today aren’t enabling it. For many organisations, creative thinking, design, or innovation is rapidly becoming a highly sought after set of competencies they’re looking to acquire or nurture to stay competitive.

Creativity is vital if we want to stay competitive and create greater impact in the world. It’s what helps us go from what is, to what could be to making change actually happen.

When you can create the right context and culture, people naturally collaborate and create together. And we’ve seen technology can help with that.

To do that we need to be meeting people where they are, and understanding what motivates them. We need to be making sure we’re asking the right questions. And we need to be figuring out how we can include and value everyone’s potential to contribute to our shared future so we can collectively make a dent in our biggest challenges.

My question to you is this: How can you enable your community’s creative potential to help them solve our biggest problems?