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Defining Ideation in Challenge Competitions

A brainstorming exercise drives the framework for ideation competitions.
There is some confusion about how “ideation” fits into challenge and prize competitions.

Often, we hear from agencies that they would like to ask the public for ideas, to survey them on a specific question, or to request proposals in response to a problem. And all of these things could be challenge competitions. But often they are not because they’re missing critical elements.

A challenge competition:

  • Has a clear problem statement and ask
  • Offers a prize incentive
  • Addresses intellectual property (IP) rights
  • Has criteria for judging entries AND
  • Includes a plan for development and/or implementation

We studied successful ideation competitions, talked with our colleagues in the challenge and prize community, the ideation community, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to come to a consensus on these points.

Examples of well structured and successful ideation competitions include:

If you’ve attended any challenge and prize training and heard our team or Cristin Dorgelo from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy speak about results, these might look familiar.

The National Eye Institute (NEI)’s challenge awarded $30,000 to the top 10 ranked ideas. Competitors submitted detailed proposals on goal statements that could be achieved in a ten-year time frame, focusing on research and development efforts. The agency outlined what needed to be included so that the ask and parameters were clear, while allowing for a breadth of creativity and new ideas from the public. The agency also offered a prize that was contextually relevant and of value to to the audience—winners were invited to a conference of a few hundred eye researchers, and the winning ideas and plans were integrated into NEI’s ten year plan.

The FTC captured the public’s imagination with its goal to find technologies to stop unwanted, automated phone calls, also known as robocalls. This may look like a purely technical competition, but it was also ideation because the challenge managers accepted proposals for technical solutions.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is challenging innovators to create solutions that will block illegal robocalls. These solutions should block robocalls on landlines and mobile phones and can operate on a proprietary or non-proprietary device or platform. Entries can be proposed technical solutions or functional solutions and proofs of concept.

The challenge was defined broadly enough that there were more than 798 entries and people submitted not only technology-based solutions, but consumer tips and tricks, and legislative policy proposals.

Take a look at the Air Force Research Lab Innovation Pavilion. They ask specific technical questions ranging from how to safely stop fleeing vehicles to ways to measure intra-cranial pressure.

People are providing written responses and proposals. The submissions are often not public so that those sending detailed and proprietary ideas in scientific and technology based proposals can keep their intellectual property (IP). Unless, as winners, the agency purchases IP.

Consider the value of the responses, the intellect, resources and time it will take people to contribute. Do you force teams to publish their entries publicly or do you provide some privacy where the agency is willing to protect the IP of the team and do a private review?

When the ideas/proposals/plans an agency seeks has potential market value outside of the competition, consider privately reviewing submissions. Potential contributors may want to protect their ideas so that if not selected winners, they could build out a product at another time.

These competitions are structured in a way that focuses around the clear process of how to be evaluated. As a result, AFRL receives novel engineering that hasn’t been seen before.

The takeaway: When you have cash on the line, what you see in return are very detailed, thoughtful proposals.

We see opportunities for the broader Ideation Community of Practice to train agencies in crafting and defining around the problem statement and then taking those ideation requests as feeders for prize competitions. Unfortunately, we’ve seen lack of rigor in how agencies write their problem statements and have noted that one recently went unawarded due to lack of relevant responses.

Consider that a classic call for an request for information (RFI) or request for proposal (RFP), surveys, and polls should be done on non-competition platforms. If your agency wants to make it a competition, rework these by addressing the criteria listed above. The public will respond to refined problem statements, including proposals, designs, diagrams and technology that doesn’t exist in the world and should.

Cristin Dorgelo said, “Use best practices for creating problem statement that will generate responses. And in challenges, the key is about incentives.”

Think about your most critical mission opportunities and explore what type of cash or prize will motivate people to participate.

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