Crowdsourcing Solutions in Surprising Places: Innovation Challenges in the Public Sector

Posted by jartese on Mar 12, 2014 2:00:07 PM

Our first scenario: You and your friends are having coffee together in the local diner, talking about the economy in your area. Trading complaints turns into trading ideas. Suddenly the group synergy generates a possible solution to the area’s economic woes that would require support from a governmental agency. What do you do?

Our second scenario: Your startup tech company is adept at creating online bridges between two entirely different entities who need to share a specific type of data. In the back of your mind, you have wondered whether you might find a government partner. Where can you turn?

In the past, you probably would shrug and say, that would never happen. But now, you might visit a surprising federal website called In scenario one, you might join the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Challenge. In scenario two, your company may have been the one to win the Ensuring Safe Transitions from Hospital to Home Challenge.

What is

Forbes reports that 50 agencies from across the federal government spectrum have come together offering “technical, scientific, ideation, and creative competitions where the U.S. government seeks innovative solutions from the public, bringing the best ideas and talent together to solve mission-centric problems.”

A public—private partnership

A tough public sector problem is identified. (There are so many from which to choose!) The appropriate government agency then issues a challenge to the private sector to come up with an innovative solution.

It turns out that whether you are a scientist, a gamer, a tech writer, or someone with a different expertise, you are likely to find a public sector challenge that draws on your expertise. The idea is that by issuing a broad and incentivized challenge, the very best innovative idea will emerge.

Meet the challenge, win a prize (and great PR)

The Forbes article outlines several other success stories, the winning innovators, and their prizes:

  • Robocall challenge, Nomorobo, $50,000;
  • Astronaut glove challenge, Flagsuit, LLC, $450,000;
  • My air, my health challenge, Conscious Clothing prototype, $160,000 in prizes;
  • Wendy Schmidt oil cleanup X challenge, Elastec/American Marine, $1.4 million in prizes.

Government agencies run challenges with other organizations as well.  A recent notable example was the "Identify Organisms form a stream of DNA sequences,"  challenge and it's $1 million prize.  This challenge has implications outside of DTRA and the intended use on pathogens as well. Technology was developed to increase the time to identify an organism by its DNA, a technological advancement with potential uses well outside of defense.

A Winning Site

The site itself was recently named a winner of the Innovations in American Government Award, a bi-annual public-private sector competition at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The website describes its mission this way:

Challenge and prize competitions are one path that federal agencies take to drive innovation and solve mission-centric problems—whether technical, scientific, or creative. More than 260 challenges have been run in the Federal government since 2010 and competitions have been around since colonization of the Americas, including the 1927 Orteig Prize, the transatlantic flight that made Charles Lindbergh famous.

Crowdsourcing an innovation challenge is a proven pathway to launch new products and services. It has become increasingly popular—and successful.


Topics: Innovation Insights

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