I came across two quotes recently that have framed my thinking about the role of challenge prizes in development.
Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation said that “solutions to many of the world’s most difficult social problems don’t need to be invented but found, funded, and scaled.”
In another, JR Reagan, US Chief Federal Innovation Officer recently wrote that innovation has no borders, no age, gender, color, creed or nationally, and that passion to innovate can strike from laboratories and universities to kindergartens and corporate boardrooms.
How then can development organizations shift the way they do business in order to access that knowledge, no matter where it sits?
Could challenge-prizes offer a way that gets us past the usual suspects to tap into the unlikely allies and potential solvers?
These questions stuck with me as I listened to stories of energy innovators at the event Nesta and UNDP co-hosted ‘Exploring Breakthrough Energy Innovations.’ Two things stuck out from the event.
1. The main reason for the event was to put in the same room the team behind the UNDP Renewable Energy Challenge and community of solvers who are working on it. When these two groups started talking, tinkering with ideas happened and assumptions gave way to facts and data. Traditional procurement processes don’t create the space for this type of interaction.
That is part of the reason why we’re testing whether challenge-prizes could be a standard way of doing business at UNDP.
So we were looking for stories where challenges offered a possibility to solve development problems. While Ashden Awards and Nesta’s Big Green Challenge gave us a perspective of those who support local solutions to energy and environment problems, the truly inspiring stories came from the energy innovators themselves.
- GravityLight designed a $10 lamp with no running costs and powered by – wait for it – gravity. It has no batteries to replace, run out, or dispose of, and it can recharge other devices, like a radio or a reading light. Originally, its aim was to crowdfund $50,000, but it has come to near $400,000.
- In a different twist, Azuri Tech combined mobile and solar technology for a pay-as-you-go power source. Subsequently, the idea got a £1 million investment from the Barclays Bank.
- One of the Nesta’s Big Green Challenge winners, the Isle of Eigg today has the world’s first completely wind, water, and sun-powered electricity grid, managed entirely by the community.
2. A pattern kept repeating in all the stories: the challenge prizes and crowdfunding filled the gap between the ‘a-ha’ idea moment and the scale up phase. This gap was not only filled with seed funding, but the space to innovate and improve on the idea (Gravity Light set out to design a light, but it came away with a lamp that can recharge other devices).
We know today that most innovation in poor countries happens through reverse engineering or modification of what is already known to address a local need (this recent evaluation of innovation programs by SIDA is the latest evidence). We need to find it, fund it, and scale it. (Also see: Can we reverse engineer development?)
The university researcher or an accountant with en engineering hobby may never apply to a procurement call from the United Nations, but they may feel inspired, moved or both by the story of families living in the heart of Europe with no access to energy. Is it not our obligation to create the space that can turn that inspiration into solutions?
P.S. For a vision far bolder than the one laid out here, check out a proposition for using challenge prizes to solve post 2015 development challenges.