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Published October 26, 2018

Challenge prizes can inspire innovations we desperately need

In the right circumstances, challenge prizes can be powerful drivers in engaging diverse innovators to solve wicked problems.
Writer
Executive Director, The Challenge Prize Centre, Nesta
Tris Dyson is the Executive Director of Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre. The centre works to grow the challenge prize field through a centre of expertise and to find, test and reward innovations that can first, or most effectively demonstrate impact on the issues affecting our lives.

How to stimulate innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face?

If carefully designed and executed well; challenge prizes can engage a diverse community of problem solvers, creating solutions that are better quality, sustainable and impactful, pushing frontiers and advancing society.

“Challenge prizes are a method for innovation. They can be used to solve problems in almost any field.”

The formula is apparently simple: offer a financial reward for the first or best solutions, attract the best innovators, and give them the support they need to compete. Prizes specify a problem to be solved but incentivise solvers anywhere.

But getting this formula right needs fine tuning and carefully crafted design. Prizes are as much about the idea journey as they are about the end and the winning solution. As explained by a report by Sitra, the journey is erratic, teams from different backgrounds and at different points on the journey need very varying support and develop at different speeds. Successful prizes are as much about the acceleration and incubation as they are about the prize itself and as this report shows the key here is flexibility.

“Prizes are as much about the idea journey as they are about the end and the winning solution.”

Never the less, it is difficult to encourage collaboration in a competitive environment. This is not unique to challenge prizes, indeed many open grant programmes insist on collaboration as a criteria of funding as though this was an end in itself and thus force it to happen in ways which are usually unsatisfactory.

Prizes which are aiming at further along in the development journey – that set clear goals for success around level of maturity and scale – are more successful at encouraging collaboration. Here teams often need to join forces to beat the competition. But successful collaboration can only be encouraged and enabled through creating connections.

“The public are rarely consulted on the direction of innovation which is strange when they are the people that are most effected.”

Challenge prizes solve problems differently by opening a problem up to the widest possible pool of innovators far beyond the usual suspects. It makes sense then that we are also open about asking what the problem is in the first place.

The topics of prizes vary but asking the public to frame the challenge prize as with Ratkaisu 100 and with our own Longitude Prize is a model which I think could be adopted more broadly. The public are rarely consulted on the direction of innovation funding which is strange when they are often the people that are most effected. If we don’t want people to shrug or turn their shoulders at innovation but instead view it positively and engage with it, then this surely a model which should be employed more.

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