The Sentient Haystack
When your economy is based on maritime trade, losing ships to poor navigation can put dents in both profits and the welfare of the population. That was the challenge facing the British Parliament when in 1714 they passed “An Act for Providing a Publick Reward for such Person or Persons as shall Discover the Longitude at Sea”. If ships could only tell how far east or west they were with the same accuracy as north-south, running into charted rocks or shoals would be much less likely. The answer did not come from a scientist, an academician, or even the Royal Navy. The prize was won by a clockmaker named John Harrison, who built a clock that was accurate enough, for long enough, to navigate at sea by the positions of celestial bodies.
Fast forward to the 21st century, where NASA is tackling the twin challenges of shrinking budgets and accelerating plans for new voyages to the moon and Mars. NASA is a leader among federal agencies in the use of “open innovation” to find novel solutions to tough challenges. Their motto is, “If you know what the solution looks like, write a request for proposal. If you don’t, run a prize competition.” Recent efforts have run the gamut from the current, low-budget “Lunar Loo Challenge” (yes, it’s what you think it is) to the expensive and successfully completed Lunar Lander Challenge, which involved building and flying a rocket-powered vehicle.
Governments at all levels can use open innovation to cast a wide net for imaginative answers to current problems. The basic concept is simple, and follows Joy’s Law: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Competitions use government’s reach to attract participation by a broad audience, from individual citizens to companies and organizations. With canny marketing and the right incentives, governments don’t have to find the needle in a haystack. Instead, they can get the haystack to self-organize, bringing forward workable solutions that might never have been proposed by the usual suspects.
Prize competitions have two features that make them both practical and valuable, especially to governments without big budgets. First, other than the marketing expenses, they cost very little until something that meets the stated goal is achieved – and frequently, they only end up paying out a fraction of the actual cost to produce the result. Second, they can raise public interest in important issues, galvanizing the population to acknowledge and help with the problem. That was the State of Ohio’s experience with the Opioid Technology Challenge, which looked to the public to come up with answers that could reduce addiction, help those at risk and protect first responders from exposure. For just a few thousand dollars in prizes, Ohio received hundreds of responses from around the world that helped focus the state’s next investments and draw innovative companies into the effort.
For jurisdictions with deep pockets, like larger cities, states or the federal government, the initial phase can be followed with more meaningful prizes for implementing promising concepts that emerge from “ideation”. The National Institutes of Health is running numerous competitions, offering hundreds of thousands of dollars for solutions that, for example, can defeat drug-resistant microbes, rapidly diagnose infections, or improve Alzheimer’s patient care. The State of Michigan awarded $200,000 to the winner of its “Carp Tank” prize for effective ways to keep invasive species out of Lake Michigan.
While affording these prizes may be out of reach for some, the return on investment for solving otherwise multi-billion-dollar problems can be worth it. For smaller communities with big challenges, there is a less expensive, but still valuable alternative, which we will explore in Part 2.
 While working on “wearable tech” at the US Department of Homeland Security, I was contacted by Walt Ugalde and his NASA colleagues, who were adapting the prize model to the myriad problems that a two-year roundtrip to Mars presents. Wondering why NASA would be calling me about a wearable tech initiative, I was told, “We use wearable tech a lot. They’re called ‘spacesuits’.” Walt and his team ended up supporting our work on DHS’ first business accelerator, which found and assisted a dozen startups from around the country working on wearable tech, even hosting a trip for the company teams to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. A full roster of federal government prize competitions may be found at https://www.challenge.gov.
Coming Soon – Problem-Solving with Open Innovation: Part 2 – Hackathon