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Noah Brier discusses the interesting idea of a Request for Startups (RFS) that Y Combinator recently released:

Yesterday Paul Graham announced Request for Startups, which describes a specific idea they’d like to see startup teams address and apply to build. As he explained, “There are a lot of startup ideas we’ve been waiting for people to apply with, sometimes for years. Recently we tried hinting at some of them, and that has yielded results. So now we’re going to try being more direct: we’re going to issue numbered RFSes with more details about the idea, and suggestions about the sort of group that would be a good match for it. Groups applying to YC will be able to specify on the application form if they’re responding to a particular RFS.”

This got me thinking about an idea I’ve been tossing around late–crowdsourcing problems rather than (or in addition to) solutions.  As I started to comment on Noah’s post I realized I just as easily could have written a quick post.  And now I have. Here is the comment I posted:

This is a really interesting idea. It somewhat dovetails with one I’ve been kicking around lately, namely the crowdsourcing of problems.

One thing that businesses spend inordinate amounts of time on (as do innovators in general) is trying to determine what problems are out there (old and new) that need a solution. I won’t get into it in this space, but they spend oodles of money trying to figure out what needs fixing so they can set their sights on designing a marketable solution and often times the design of their research leaves them with a skewed point of view. The missing element would seem to be a crowdsourced approach to problem generation, rather than the solution (although that could be a viable next step).

To me, the idea of an incubator or VC providing the problem to be solved is interesting, but at the same time I wonder if overall we wouldn’t be well served with a community approach to problem identification and then a race by startups to come up with innovative answers to those problems.

The crowdsourcing of problems could accelerate the time it takes businesses to identify gaps in current product or service offerings and spend more time developing better solutions to those problems for businesses and/or consumers. Of course, the danger is that we don’t just want innovators focusing on immediate problems as it may lead to unexplored paths (which, often times are the most interesting and groundbreaking). However, I would think that certain types of innovators and firms would select themselves into a more direct problem-solving approach to innovation versus a more open, exploratory exercise.