Blogpost: The prize-winning city

By Jo Flatt

What do canned goods, margarine, fire extinguishers and the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris all have in common? They were all innovations resulting from contests, an old concept that has roared back in style like vintage fashion. Prize contests refer to the practice of crowdsourcing new ideas, strategies or products from networks outside the traditional range of experts - whether across geographies, companies, industries, sectors or disciplines. In the search for the next prize winner - anyone can be an expert.

While prize contests have grown in popularity over the last few years, what’s particularly remarkable is the range of solutions that are being sought. A quick look at Challenge.gov, an online platform to centralize all the prize competitions run across the 50 US federal government agencies shows a remarkable range of opportunities for non-traditional experts to engage in solving complex problems. On the website, one can find contests for 3D printable small robots to assist in bomb disposal, to the balancing of dead weight on Mars, or randomized control trials for criminal justice problems. Issues and challenges that one never thought were public information are now being showcased for anyone to explore, transforming the big black box of government to be accessible and relatable.

And Challenge.gov is not the only example. Prize contests are being used across private and philanthropic sectors as well. The uptake of prizes has been so great that a wide range of intermediary organizations have popped up to both support development of prize campaigns and connect the ‘solutions seekers’ with the ‘problem solvers’. One such intermediary, InnoCentive, has a problem solver network of over 300,ooo individuals who actively participate in prize based solution development.

So, why are organizations heading down this road? Call it recognition of limitations or hopes of new horizons, as today’s challenges become increasingly complex, institutions are wanting to look elsewhere for new kinds of solutions. In times of fiscal austerity, prizes can also be cheaper than traditional request for proposal (RFP) processes since the solution seeker only pays for success. Prizes can also bring attention to new markets, issues or areas of opportunity by attracting investment and attention to otherwise overlooked industries. The success garnered from a prize contest can make unlikely ideas suddenly more attractive, bringing the good ones closer to implementation and commercialization.

Prizes can also spur cross sector collaboration and the sharing of knowledge between industries. A study completed by the Harvard Business School, Copenhagen Business School and InnoCentive, evaluated the trends of crowdsourced innovation solutions by looking at 166 scientific problems across industries, firms and countries between 2001 and 2005. It showed that most of the winning ideas came from problem solvers whose fields of expertise were furthest away from the problem. This conclusion turns the traditional frame of expertise on its head. No longer must we depend exclusively on astrophysicists to think about astrophysics, with the right level of creativity, dedication and teamwork anyone can take a shot at developing a good idea!

So what does this mean for cities?

As shocking as it may seem, Canadian municipalities have very few ways of making money. Aside from property taxes and user fees - there isn’t much else that cities can do for dollars, which may seem rather ironic given that the majority of Canadians resides in cities. Prize contests, however offer one way of financing creative problem solving for some of the biggest challenges faced by cities. And, rather than just paying companies to develop solutions, contests are encouraging investment in local residents.

Prizes also illustrate a growing a desire to change the dynamics of power in urban governance, by shifting the way that we understand expertise and how we access great ideas. Designing the most successful public space, bike share program or waste management system all require significant insights into the realm of behaviors, needs, and fears of the daily user. And often, it’s the people themselves who are best at knowing what will work – so why not let them be the experts?

A cautionary note:

While prize and contests may seem like a simple strategy for innovative solutions – it’s important to remember that not all problems are created equal - and many complex issues cannot be solved with a contest. The first thing to determine is whether the challenge presented can benefit from a prize format, why has it not yet been solved before and what structural or systemic barriers are getting in the way?

Another key concern about the prize process is selection and implementation - who is choosing the winners and how are their ideas being applied? Every idea still needs work to refine, customize and ensure local receptivity. We can’t assume that all crowdsourced ideas are good ones – the idea may fall flat on its face, even if it won the contest.

Building great cities is no small feat. It is a deliberate process that requires ambitious goals, experimentation, and even more importantly, a commitment to bringing new faces, perspectives and voices to the table. And with no beaten road to follow, we must be open to the full range of strategies or approaches to get there. Prizes are but one arrow in our quiver as city builders and engaged residents. If we continue to complement this innovative practice with other unique strategies, processes and collaborations, we may just uncover that next best city minded thing.

Useful links

  • Interested in running a challenge prize? Check out Challenge Prizes: A practice guide by Perrie Ballantyne at the Nesta Centre for Challenge Prizes.
  • Did you know that the City of Toronto ran a challenge prize earlier this year? See the 2014 NXT City Prize and learn about the winning idea (of over 120 submissions!), Yonge Redux.

Author: Jo Flatt works as a Senior Project Manager at Evergreen Cityworks and Consultant at The Next Practice, specializing in the fields of urban sustainability and change management strategies to support innovation across sectors.

Photo credit: Photo courtesy of the city of Marietta.

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