Is Crowdsourcing the Future of Sustainability or a Tool For Economic Growth?

Resurrection of Gaia

Resurrection of Gaia by Billelis —


This essay was written in December 2013 as part of a collaborative project—Discourses to Foresight—from MA Innovation Management course from Central Saint Martins.

First we were asked to research Sustainability, to develop critical analyses of observations and insights and to present it to the whole year—our final solution for the future discourse of sustainability was ‘Crowdsourcing‘.

Then our task was to write an individual essay with our own critical opinion of the position developed by the team. As a democratic regime doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity, my standpoint is summarized in following writing.

A big thank you to my jolly team made of Lis, Keit, Mafe, MaruRichard, SaiSally & Sasa.

Is Crowdsourcing the Future of Sustainability or a Tool For Economic Growth?

by Luminita Molico

As the sustainability discourses are an intertwined social, economic and environmental mix of factors, can crowdsourcing—an Internet dependent economic business model—meet the necessary requirements to be considered as an integral part of a sustainable world future scenario?

Having its roots in the Linux open source movement Fig.1 (Marjanovic, Fry & Chataway, 2012), Jeff Howe, the editor of Wired Magazine, defined crowdsourcing in 2006 as follows:

‘Crowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. […] The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.’ (Howe, 2006b)

Industries that benefit from the crowd power range from media & entertainment (YouTube and MySpace), science & technology (InnoCentive), to consumer products (P&G) and start-up companies (Threadless). Inspired by the efficacy of the open source movement, internal R&D oriented corporations like IBM and most recently Microsoft started to use crowdsourcing as a way to save money and develop better products (2008, 2009 p.54).

P&G tripled its profits to $10 billion within 7 years by creating an Internet-based engine exploiting the collective intelligence of scientists from around the world (Howe, 2008, 2009 pp. 9-10) while InnoCentive’s—a commercial network of 140,000 scientists—average earnings from a successful project ranges around twenty times the fee paid to an individual solver (Howe, 2008, 2009 pp. 44-45).
iStockphoto an amateur photographers’ community charging twenty-five pence for a photo—99% lower than big stock photo agencies employing professional photographers—was bought for $50 million and was expected to increase revenues to $262 million by 2012 (Howe, 2008, 2009 p. 8). All this due to the difference in paying individual photographers an insignificant amount of money compared to current professional standards.

In 1988 the historian Donald Worster wrote:

‘The capitalists […] promised that, through the technological domination of the earth, they could deliver a more fair, rational, efficient and productive life for everyone […] Their method was simply to free individual enterprise from the bonds of traditional hierarchy and community, whether the bondage derived from other humans or the earth […] That meant teaching everyone to treat the earth, as well as each other, with a frank, energetic, self-assertiveness […] People must think constantly in terms of making money. They must regard everything around them—the land, its natural resources, their own labor—as potential commodities that might fetch a profit in the market. They must demand the right to produce, buy and sell those commodities without outside regulation or interference […] As wants multiplied, as markets grew more and more far-flung, the bond between humans and the rest of nature was reduced to the barest instrumentalist.’ (Worster, 1988 pp. 11-12)

Not only that the corporations do not have to pay the actual price for innovations but also such collective intelligence communities have the potential to master overwhelming tasks—creating content for monumental databases such as the privately owned Wikipedia (Howe, 2008, 2009 p. 11).

One could not help but wonder: what lies beneath crowd’s motivation to participate with knowledge and talent in such a financial disadvantageous exchange?
According to Jeff Howe, the ‘fun factor’ (2008, 2009 pp. 43-44) seems to be one of the most common themes when talking about crowdsourcing’s rewards. Same author explains further:

‘It’s about cred […] it’s about the emerging reputation economy, where people work late into the night on one creative endeavor or another in the hope that their community—be it fellow designers, scientists, or computer hackers—acknowledge their contribution in the form of kudos and, just maybe, some measure of fame‘ (Howe, 2008, 2009 p. 3).

Besides winning honorary distinctions, it [participating in crowdsourcing projects] also creates a certain feeling of meritocracy: pedigree, race, gender, age as qualification become irrelevant in the digital space (Howe, 2008, 2009 p. 13).

The abundance of crowdsourced projects is also influenced by the increase of ‘spare cycles’—people’s free time not claimed by work or families duties—as the employment market becomes more volatile.

The rising number of unemployed or partially employed people, decreasing job satisfaction, the increasing number of global Internet users (Stats, 2012), they all seem to have created a fertile ground for crowd powered projects.

Howe (2008, 2009 pp. 14-15) argues that the ‘crowdsourcing phenomenon’ managed to create a greater democratization in commerce, a certain decentralization movement across industries, accelerating the process of globalization. A process in which cash flows from developed to developing countries. Though the last statement is partially true as crowdsourcing relies mostly on the existence of an Internet connection—there are 2.4 billions connected users (Stats, 2012)—leaving a global majority of 4.5 billions—mostly from developing regions—excluded.

There was never a better time to quote Marx’s words from Communist Manifesto, that capitalism ‘strips of its halo every occupation, and replaces all the traditional forms of life veiled by religious and political illusions with naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’ (Marx & Engels, 2004).

‘The world, like the society, is a product of history, of meteorological and geological history. Comfortable regularities […] like the atomic progression of minerals and the law of gravity function within the context of interconnecting and changing relationships of unlimited complexity.’ (Engels, 1972)

In 1972 a new challenge was being laid out for mankind by The Club of Rome and the authors of one of the most influential books of our times (Sachs, 2013), ‘Limits to Growth’. Using an advanced computer simulator, the authors obtained a set of future global scenarios ending at the beginning of the 22nd century. The scenarios predicted the overshoot and collapse of the planet’s economy and population if certain political, economical, environmental and social issues weren’t addressed in time. (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004)

Although initially the book raised huge controversies, due to its apocalyptic scenarios involving new concepts about finite resources combined with radical regulative economic and political solutions—raised in an era when the western economic powers were dominated (as they remain today) by Milton Friedman’s strong liberal economic theories—the book’s relevance grew exponentially in time—becoming a best seller with more than 12 million copies sold—as most of the original calculations and scenarios are still valid even after 40 years.

Later, in 1987 the World Commission of Environment and Development put the idea of sustainability into memorable words:

‘A sustainable society is one that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ (Development, 1987)

Meadows, Randers & Meadows (2004) argue that growth has been the dominant behavior of the socioeconomic global system within the last 200 years and that population and industry growth are influencing many other planetary features such as pollution levels, accumulation of atmospheric CO2 or greenhouse gas.

Culturally—in contemporary society—growth unquestionably signifies increasing welfare and is considered synonym with notions of development, advance, success and improvement; no wonder it has become common practice that government and corporate leaders organize their agenda around such terms.

Though growth can genuinely solve some problems, it also creates others indirectly, mostly because of Earth’s finite nature. (BP, June 2011) (WATER) or as John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1932:

‘The problem of want and poverty and the economic struggle between classes and nations is nothing but a frightful muddle, a transitory and unnecessary muddle. For the Western World already has the resources and the technique […] capable of reducing the Economic Problem […] Thus the day is not far off when the Economic Problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and […] the arena of the heart and of human relations, of creation and behavior.’ (Hawken, Lovins & Lovins, 2000)

The current economic model based on growth, present in the majority of developed countries—contrary to popular belief—actually perpetuates poverty and increases the gap between the rich and the poor (Group, 2013) because the capital flows disproportionately. Studies (UN p.42) show that in 1960 20 percent of the world’s people living in developed countries had 30 times the per capita income of the 20 percent who lived in the poorest countries. By 1995 the average income ratio between the richest and poorest 20 percent had increased from 30:1 to 82:1 percent. (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004)

An immediate conclusion argues that a continuation of the current model will widen this gap further and only a structural change of the system will close it (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004) (Mesarovic & Pestel, 1975).

There are social structures related to the so-called social arrangements that ‘systematically reward the privileged with the power and resources to acquire even more privilege’ (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004 p. 44). Examples range from ethnic discrimination, different taxation options for the rich, inferior nutrition for the poor, disparity between private and state education and capital dependent political access.

Other feedback loops (Senge et al., 1997) that keep constant the widening of income difference between rich and poor are popularly called “success to the successful” because they revolve around providing the means to succeed to the already successful (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004 p. 44). Their malign nature needs to be counterbalanced by anti-discrimination methods such as universal health care and education, income proportionate taxation or financial support for the needy.

In actively addressing sustainability, the first step requires switching the discourse from growth to organic or undifferentiated growth (Mesarovic & Pestel, 1975 p. 7). To achieve an undifferentiated growth, a global dialogue is therefore required; meaning that only through a global perspective and global actions the sustainability’s blueprint could be assembled. Nations are called for collaboration rather than confrontation, for long-term solutions and anticipatory thinking. (Mesarovic & Pestel, 1975) Global communication and alliances could facilitate an equal distribution of all finite resources. A horizontal planetary system is needed in order to achieve organic growth.
After the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, it’s time for the next revolution: the Sustainability one. (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004 pp. 266-72) For this revolution to succeed a necessary step is to change social and individual attitudes (Mesarovic & Pestel, 1975 p. 147) (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004 p. 261) for a New Age of equilibrium, a time for resurgence of humanity, an equitable and deeply desirable world based upon the principles of the human heart and soul (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004 pp. 262-63).

Considering the fact that crowdsourcing—a confusion is often made with the notion of open source, but the difference in terms of morality and distribution of benefits could not be greater—is used and advertised mainly as a cheap means of exploitation of the labor force in the neo liberal system’s paramount quest for growth and adding up the arguments of sustainability experts against endemic growth based discourses we need to seriously question crowd source’s capacity of becoming an integral part of the future sustainability discourse.

To conclude, crowdsourcing today is merely a tool used for creating large volumes with minimum investment, within the growth driven contemporary economic context; an economic context shaped around market liberalization, competition and deregulations, all factors opposing Sustainability’s necessary existence principles.

Table of figures:

Different types of ‘open innovation: open source, outsourcing and crowdsourcing

Different types of ‘open innovation: open source, outsourcing and crowdsourcing
Fig. 1 (Marjanovic, Fry & Chataway, 2012)

GDP (current US$)

GDP (current US$)
Fig. 1.1 (Group, 2013)


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