The Sony Open Planet Ideas Challenge wrapped up the first project stage, "Inspiration," a week ago, with 335 suggested environmental issues to tackle. After culling through the inspirations, the next phase, "Concepting," kicks off today with the announcement of the selected environmental brief.
The Inspiration phase brought out tons of great ideas from participants, with Urban Farming, Product Packaging, Deforestation, Water and Food Waste rising to the top as the most popular issues. With such a big starting question: "How can today's technology address the environmental challenges we're all facing?," the answers were bound to be tough to sort out. So tough to sort out, in fact, the team decided upon six prominent areas which are all encompassed by the theme of using resources more efficiently rather than focus on one single issue. The six resulting themes:
1. More with less: How can technology help us use our resources more efficiently?
2. Bringing the issues to life: How can technology close the gap between our actions and their impacts?
3. No such thing as waste: How can technology turn waste into something more useful?
4. Smarter Design: How can technology help us design less resource intensive products, services and infrastructure?
5. Smarter recycling: How can technology help us recycle more?
6. Behavior change: How can technology help us make the less resource intensive option the desirable option?
Now it's up to participants to use these inspirations to come up with technology mash-up solutions, build on others' suggestions, or just comment or applaud concepts they like. This concepting phase goes until November 29th, when the panel re-convenes to sift through the mash-ups.
We were curious about the challenges and process of this open-source concept, and had the chance to discuss the project up to this point with a few participating members of the Sony team: Emily Nicoll, general manager of environmental communications, Sony Europe, and Morgan David, head of Sony Broadcast and Professional Research Labs. Emily provided us with a bird's eye view of the process, while Morgan relayed in-depth insights from the engineering side.
Below, we talk with them about the transition from Inspiration to Concepting, what lessons the prior Forest Guard project brings to Open Planet Ideas, the value of the project overall, and how the community will be involved throughout the challenge.
How did the project team sort through all of the Inspirations to select an issue? What are the criteria?
Emily: We received so many disparate ideas, which is great, but most luckily fall into 'meta' categories, the big ideas: sustainable living; waste; water and how we use it; pollution, etc. We will, of course, start with the most popular ones, because this is all about the input we receive from the community. With our expert panel, we'll get everyone together and rollup our sleeves, and formulate what the big categories are, and the sub-themes that fit within them. From there, we'll look at what the potential impact is on the environment, and how technology can fit in, and what's feasible. The WWF is there helping to identify where the real problems are and where we can really make a difference. We hope to keep it as broad as possible in the beginning.
Once an inspiration is chosen, how does the engineering and design team approach the project?
Emily: As the expert panel, we want to set the constraints, but also don't want to guide it. We want the community to do that. Engineers have been, and will be on the Open Planet Ideas site, commenting and answering questions all the time. People can ask questions and get answers about technology, work through and build on ideas with the engineers helping them along.
Morgan: We are still quite open-minded about what happens from an engineering point of view, notwithstanding the experience we gained from the Forest Guard project. So it is not clear yet what type of engineering we will be engaged in, if we will use engineers from a single R&D team (we have several in Europe) or indeed if we will be looking for technology partners outside Sony as well.
Projects like these are inevitably a fusion of what we know, in terms of technology and processes, and the untried, in terms of external engagements and new applications. This is what makes the projects so interesting. Where possible we try to use structured project management to ensure that we can see when there are problems and keep stakeholders well informed of progress. We also expect to communicate with the wider community as we progress, keeping everybody engaged.
With implementation projects time is of the essence so we will tend to start with a mixture of practical feasibility tests e.g. can we compile software to run on this? Will A talk to B? How fast can we do that? What is the maximum range? Power consumption when doing this? In parallel we will be forming an idea of the solution design at a top level, breaking the project into manageable components to be shared amongst the team members. Once the feasibility of the design is largely proved we would then review this with stakeholders to make sure everybody understands what we will be able to deliver, how this reflects the original concept and brief and what limitations we may have to accept in order to produce something within a realistic time-frame.
After a concept is chosen, can you take us through what the process will look like from there?
Emily: The collaboration theme will just keep building, which is great. People can feed off others' ideas and it could get really interesting. There are lots of different types of people on the site—people who know things about different technology—communication, software, electronics—and they'll all be able to give their input and contribute. The reactions and input from the community will allow the best Concepts to naturally bubble to the top. The expert panel will look at the most popular Concepts and select which is the most inspiring, impactful, and far-reaching, but feasible and do-able. Everyone who has collaborated on that project will have a chance to be part of the final concept.
We'll also have a "Hack Day," where we'll invite all involved parties to come together physically to actually work with the experts and the collaborators. It'll be a hands-on "how are we going to make this work?" day.
Morgan: Broadly speaking, we will be looking for opportunities at the concepting stage that have an angle that plays to the strengths that Sony and WWF offer. We will invite engineers to think about some of the concepts and see if they have ideas about how to help with suitable technologies. This will help us guide promising concepts with our thoughts about how we can apply technology or practical experience. When we evaluate the concepts, we will, to a greater or lesser extent, be estimating the feasibility of the most promising ones. Engineers will be asked to come up with outline ideas of how they would implement the different ideas with estimates of likely costs, availability of technology and timescale. The feasibility will be an important factor in the evaluation process.
Once the winning concept has been announced we will be looking to form a team to work on the practical realisation. At this stage we are quite open-minded about how this team is formed and, in addition to our own R&D people, the realisation may also include more detailed contributions from the concept originators or the wider Open Planet Ideas community.
On Forest Guard, what did you learn from that process that you are applying to Open Planet Ideas? How is Forest Guard similar or different from the Open Planet Ideas challenge?
Emily: It will be similar community involvement as with Forest Guard. On that project, we worked with the kids. They came over to R&D and worked with the engineers and designers on getting it together. They brought a different perspective and new ideas, and we're hoping for the same collaboration element with Open Planet Ideas. But with Forest Guard, they had already come up with the cause and the solution when Sony became involved. Whereas with Open Planet Ideas, we are starting much earlier in the process and opening it up to everyone, working with people all the way through.
Morgan: On Forest Guard we learned that there are lots of people outside Sony who are willing to help, so for Open Planet Ideas we should put more energy into considering who might join us in the venture once we have decided what it should be. This is better than trying to do things where you lack the experience. For example, on the Forest Guard project we got some great support from Dr. Graham Kent, Director of the of University Nevada Reno, Seismology Lab. Graham and his team were in fact already quite experienced in this kind of monitoring and were able to give us real practical help in staging the trial in the Lake Tahoe area. I think that if we had met Graham earlier he would have given us a lot of good practical advice about communications infrastructure and saved us time and possibly given us a quicker better result. For Open Planet Ideas, we will need to be on the look out for this kind of participation from an early stage.
What do you see as the biggest challenges with an open-platform project like this? What will be the biggest challenge from an engineering and design perspective?
Emily: There are challenges and drawbacks that haven't even been considered, so it's a learning process. The open platform is allowing us to think differently, tapping into the amazing potential of creative and inspiring people who are going to come up with something new. It's great for us at Sony to be exposed to a different way of thinking of things, breaking out of box with new concepts.
Morgan: This is a very difficult question to answer as we have not selected the project yet and it could be very misleading to speculate on the potential problems. We know what the problems were for Forest Guard, for example we knew from early on that using security cameras would require big solar panels and batteries because they are not designed for very low power operation. However, we had to choose them because they were all we had that were weather-proof, robust and remotely controllable. We didn't have the time or budget to start a camera design from scratch. But this time I expect the challenges will be very different.
Will the results of the project be evaluated? Has the Forest Guard project been evaluated for effectiveness? If so, how?
Morgan: The Forest Guard programme was evaluated in a number of ways, and this was a significant factor in the design of the Open Planet Ideas programme. Public reaction to Forest Guard was positive and it was also a very positive experience for Sony employees. We also completed two technical trials for Forest Guard and wrote a detailed paper which extracted many of the main learning points from the programme. I would expect us to do the same for the Open Planet Ideas programme.
Can you give any examples of some of your personal favorite submissions so far?
Morgan: It wouldn't be fair to start picking favorites at this stage but I have a soft spot for ideas that are based in grass-roots solutions rather than politically enabled solutions. For that reason I like ideas that promote personal initiatives like local food co-operatives (saving food miles), micro-generation of power, sharing schemes for useful tools or lifts.
How is the Open IDEO platform working so far, and what role is IDEO taking in the project?
Emily: We've worked a lot with IDEO, and they've been great, and have a wonderful process. We worked with them on the Open Planet Ideas platform for 8 months to determine how it would all work. Thom Hulme of IDEO brings their process and the synthesis factor, helping narrow down categories while keeping them just broad enough.
The great thing about this platform is the result won't be just from an individual. Each step involves community and collaboration, so a variety of stakeholders will have contributed to the final concept.
This post is brought to you by Sony's Open Planet Ideas. Participate today by registering online at www.openplanetideas.com