Sony calls on engineers to take part in Open Planet Ideas crowd-sourcing initiative

An online technology incubator aims to harness engineering talent from around the world in the hunt for innovative solutions to global environmental challenges.

Open Planet Ideas uses the power of the internet to create new opportunities for collaborative R&D. Backed by Sony and conservation group WWF, it offers those taking part the chance to get their ideas in front of some of Sony’s most senior engineers and technologists. The final winner will work with the technology giant’s R&D team to develop their concept further.

The Open Planet Ideas website is an open collaborative platform that invites people with a wide range of skills, ideas and perspectives on technology to bring them to bear on sustainability and the environment. Participants are given a menu of existing Sony technologies for inspiration and invited to come up with new ways they could be used individually – or more likely in innovative combinations – to meet key environmental challenges.

The technologies on offer include wireless microphones, advanced solar cells, presence-sensing software and even the Sony PSP handheld console – in this context not just a games unit, but a powerful, multi-functional portable media device.

The initial Inspiration phase of the process has already honed down hundreds of suggestions into six themes that form the basis of the challenge. These include the innovative use of technology to promote recycling, to aid sustainable design, to enable greater energy efficiency and to help people make ’green choices’ in their everyday lives. Now Sony and WWF are inviting individuals, companies and groups to join Open Planet Ideas at its Concepting phase by contributing their own ideas, and by suggesting how those already posted could be refined and improved.

When Open Planet Ideas closes for concepts on November 29, the submissions will be examined by an expert panel that includes senior representatives of Sony and WWF. The concepts rated the most promising by the panel and the online community will be taken forward for detailed evaluation of their technical and environmental merits, before the final idea is announced in January 2011. Sony’s R&D team will then work with those that have contributed to the final idea and WWF to progress it to the proof-of-concept stage.

I want to have my eyes opened. What I’m looking for from Open Planet Ideas is something I never thought of before, that makes me think this has to be worth exploring in more detail and maybe take forward.

Markus Zumkeller

Director of technology and engineering in Europe, Sony

Open Planet Ideas is based on the principle of ’crowdsourcing’, an approach that seeks to drive innovation by bringing multiple sources of expertise and ideas together using the internet and other ubiquitous communications platforms. Its website allows those taking part to share ideas via a range of media, for example videos or conceptual diagrams. Early trials of the approach have already yielded tangible results. Last year Sony worked with a group of contributors in California to develop the Forest Guard concept. This proposed the integration of the company’s advanced security cameras, wireless networks and photo-stitching software to create an online group of ’citizen firewatchers’ able to monitor areas at greatest risk of forest fires.

Open Planet Ideas will cast its collaborative net much wider. Markus Zumkeller, Sony’s director of technology & engineering in Europe and a member of the expert panel, hopes the result will be some genuinely game-changing innovations. ‘I am looking for a surprise,’ said Zumkeller. ’I want to have my eyes opened. I know all about my engineers and researchers in Europe, I know what type of R&D they are doing. What I’m looking for from Open Planet Ideas is something I never thought of before, that makes me think this has to be worth exploring in more detail and maybe take forward.’

According to Zumkeller, the initiative could well hold valuable lessons for the way companies such as Sony approach R&D in the future, especially given the imperative to design products that are sustainable as well as commercially viable. ’If you look backwards you can see that R&D has mainly focused on topics that are directly tailored to the company’s targets. In the future, of course it should continue to support those targets but there’s this new aspect of sustainability. That means focusing on longer-term goals rather than just the short-term targets of the company.’

The outward-looking, collaborative model of Open Planet Ideas could help, said Zumkeller. ’The special thing about it is that we can bring together the specific know-how of engineers and researchers with customers’ expectations on one hand, and on the other people who are coming at things from a totally different angle, who are thinking about environmental issues and sustainability in general. ‘It’s more likely that when different disciplines and viewpoints come together – let’s call it crowdsourcing – we create new engineering aspects and new ideas simply by creating some discussion among them,’ added Zumkeller. He is one of a number of senior Sony technologists on the expert panel, including Takuya Kawagoi, director of the company’s design centre in Europe.