What do you do when you have a tough development problem that you haven’t been able to solve – after decades?
In our case, we decided to experiment with the challenge prize to help find a solution for 3,000 returnee families in rural Bosnia and Herzegovina who had been without access to electricity since they came home after the war. (See: Using prizes to spur innovation)
Not only are we very excited to hear the results of the field testing that’s taking place right now, but we’ve had some time to reflect on what we learned during the whole process of issuing our first UNDP challenge.
What did we learn?
Not only did we learn:
1. When to issue a challenge
But we also learned to:
2. Define the problem, not the solution
Traditional procurement methods outline both the problem and the preferred types of solutions – limiting the scope for innovation and biasing companies with established past experience and credentials at the expense of hidden talent in unlikely places (such as a librarian with an engineering hobby).
With our prize, we adopted Nesta’s Centre for Challenge Prizes methodology: identifying a specific problem first, and then focusing on defining what a solution must do in terms of its performance (in our case, how much energy it needs to generate, at what cost).
In the end though, it is up to the ‘crowd’ to come up with ways of how to meet the criteria – they decide how the problem gets solved and the prize is awarded only for solutions that pass the set criteria.
3. Appeal to the heart, not only the brains
The human face of our challenge are the 3,000 families who live in the heart of Europe with no access to energy. This was a powerful motive for world class experts (from academia, startups, venture capital, renewable energy, and engineering) to volunteer and help us both make sure our problem definition is ambitious yet realistic, and spread the word about the challenge.
We turned a development problem into a compelling story that moved people to care and to get involved.
On a procedural level, it helped us ensure a level of quality control that has no equivalent in any one single organization because it brought together people across different sectors, interests, and expertise.
Nezir Čelik, without electricity for decades, tells his own story
And citizens around the world won’t flock to solve your problem unless you figure out how to bring the problem to them (part of this is the art of storytelling).
Before you launch a challenge, talk about what you are doing and why. Try to figure out if anyone has had similar ideas, what worked, what didn’t, and why. Hook people to your story, get them to care and let them help.
Once the challenge is out, it’s time to hit the ground running. Meet with people and groups where your potential solution may be ‘hiding’, and hold town-hall-style meetings (in both the real and digital world, depending on what’s appropriate in your context). Get influencers in your sector to talk about your story (media, community leaders, or young people). With social media it has never been as easy to reach them and get your story heard.
There should be no idle day for your team in this phase of the competition but there are major trade-offs. And unlike with more traditional procurement methods, you can engage with solvers to the extent you feel is necessary – questions, clarifications, discussions, and brainstorming.
This may help provide more context to your solvers, and it’s a good feedback to your team on how well you designed your problem and how you’re managing outreach.
5. Test 123
In the case of our renewable energy challenge, we asked for solvers to design a physical prototype that had to be mailed to Bosnia and Herzegovina for testing.
When the time came, we had to quickly navigate the country’s customs laws and procedures – something we didn’t really think through at the beginning of the process. It resulted in a bit of stress and scramble, taking our focus away from what we really should have been very excited about – setting up the prototype in the field, getting families to play with it and test how user friendly it is.
Not every challenge asks for a physical prototype, and not every challenge has a two-step, problem-solution design. A phased approach would imply several steps such as asking the crowd to help define a problem, then submit inspiring solutions, vote and collaborate on the most promising ones – OpenIDEO has a very nice methodology along these lines, and Nesta’s Big Green Challenge is a great example of this approach in practice.
But in both cases, the same principle seems to hold true: plan on what you’ll do after you get your solutions, be it testing, or supporting (incubating) solvers to develop solutions further.
To be fair, not everyone fully backs the concept of challenge prizes as a way of addressing social issues and development problems.
This is why we will need to continue cataloguing when the approach works, under what circumstances it does not, and what to watch out for so that challenge prizes aren’t seen as just a buzz-wordy fad – but one among many approaches that can help link expertise (wherever it may be) with problems.
And even though there are already several other development players who we can learn a lot from (the World Bank, UNICEF and the European Commission to name a few), the best way for us to get better is to get our hands dirty!
Got any more tips to share? Do you have an experience where a challenge prize was not a way to go? We’d love to get in touch with you!