John Davis, a chemist in Bloomington, Ill., knows about concrete. For example, he knows that if you keep concrete vibrating it won’t set up before you can use it. It will still pour like a liquid. Mr. Davis discovered this during a conversation he had with his neighbor who owned a concrete business.

Now he has applied that knowledge to a seemingly unrelated problem thousands of miles away. He figured out that devices that keep concrete vibrating can be adapted to keep oil in Alaskan storage tanks from freezing.

The chemist and the institute came together through InnoCentive, a company that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges) to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes for resolving them. The company gets a posting fee and, if the problem is solved, a “finders fee” equal to about 40 percent of the prize.

The idea that solutions can come from anywhere, and from people with seemingly unrelated work, is another key. Dr. Lakhani said his study of InnoCentive found that “the further the problem was from the solver’s expertise, the more likely they were to solve it,” often by applying specialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.

For example, he said, the brain might be thought of as a biological system, but “certain brain problems may not be solvable by taking a biological approach. You may want to cast it as an electrical engineering approach. An electrical engineer will come in and say, ‘Oh, here’s the answer for you.’ They have not thought of themselves as being neuroscientists but now they can approach the problem from the point of view of electrical engineering.”

The oil-flow problem was solved by an outsider, said Scott Pegau, its research program manager. If it could easily have been solved “by people within the industry, it would have been,” he said. Instead, Mr. Davis approached it with knowledge he picked up from a friend’s concrete business.

One critical element is encouraging organizations to take novel innovation approaches in the first place. That was the task that drew the Rockefeller Foundation to the company, said Maria Blair, an associate vice president there.

Ms. Blair said the foundation was nearing the end of an 18-month pilot program after which the success of the partnership would be assessed. Anecdotal evidence so far suggests the arrangement can be useful, she said, citing as an example a challenge to devise a reliable, durable solar-powered light source that could function as a flashlight and as general room illumination. “The solver ended up being a from a lay person in New Zealand,” she said, and his light is now being made in China.

A fascinating contest is the Foldit contest which is a volunteer effort. It began as Rosetta@home, a project using down-time of computers throughout the world to do the laborious calculations needed to determine the shapes of proteins, strings of amino acid crucial to the cells of every living thing. The way these molecules work depends on how the strings fold, but calculating the folding is, as Foldit put it, “one of the pre-eminent challenges of biology.”

In Foldit, players will compete online to design proteins, and researchers will test designs to see if they are good candidates for use in drugs. The researchers who worked to design it say results will also be interesting because people’s intuition for protein folding does not seem necessarily to be tied to formal training or laboratory experience.

“Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize,” said Zoran Popovic, a computer scientist and engineer at the University of Washington.

Learn the habits and creative thinking techniques used by creative geniuses throughout history researched by Michael Michalko. Visit:

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