Challenges for Creative Minds

Got a good idea? Your eco-friendly brainstorm or media scheme might be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars

If you have an idea for an innovative, executable consumer product or service that can "contribute to an eco-friendly lifestyle" or a plan for the smart use of media in communities, then get ready to jot it down, draft blueprints, and fill out the submission form: Your idea could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Three new initiatives challenge creative minds everywhere to come up with innovative ideas and designs related to sustainability and to digital media. Part of a growing trend of competitions seeking solutions for pressing problems, all three combine two powerful concepts: the social-change catalyzing award (à la TED Prize) and the competition-fuels-innovation contest (à la Ansari X-Prize).

Help Consumers Reduce Global Warming

The Picnic Green Challenge, the first of the three, is an eco-contest organized by Picnic, an annual conference and idea festival that takes place in Amsterdam this year from Sept. 23 to Sept. 29. The best ideas (one or several, depending on the quality of the entries) will win up to €500,000 ($670,000) in funding, plus free consulting and help opening doors that could bring the project to fruition.

The winning projects should be executable; the submissions (which must be received by Aug. 30) will include a concrete plan to bring the idea to market. In addition, organizers are looking for well-designed products and services that can "enable large numbers of people to effortlessly reduce their personal impact on global warming."

The winners will be selected by a jury chaired by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who has launched several environmental initiatives recently, including devoting part of the profits of Virgin Atlantic Airways to research on greener fuels. Other jurors are representatives of both big business (Unilever and Tommy Hilfiger) and environmental organizations (Greenpeace and the Climate Group) as well as designers and tech investors. (Disclosure: I've been asked to join the jury.)

Apply Fuller's Trimtab Principle

The Buckminster Fuller Institute, the Brooklyn (N.Y.)-based organization named for the visionary American inventor, has issued a broader challenge. The BFI seeks an idea with "significant potential to solve humanity's most pressing problems in the shortest possible time while enhancing the Earth's ecological integrity." Ideally, write the organizers, the entries should demonstrate Fuller's "trimtab principle", which posits that "small amounts of energy and resources precisely applied at the right time and place can produce maximum advantageous change."

BFI Challenge entries (which are due Oct. 30) can relate to any field, from art to industry—it remains to be seen if such a wide and vaguely described target will yield significant results (the most successful innovation competition to date, the X-Prize, has worked because of its very precise guidelines). The winner will receive $100,000 "to be used to take the winning strategy to the next stage of development". The judges have not yet been announced.

Reinvent Digital Media

Last week the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami issued its second News Challenge, an initiative that will award a total of $5 million to a range of innovative proposals for using digital technologies to "inform and inspire communities" and "improve the lives of people where they live and work."

Entries, due by Oct. 15, should employ digital media (ideally within an open-source framework), deliver news or information on a shared basis, and involve a geographically defined community. In other words, this is about collaborative journalism and information.

In 2006, its inaugural year, the jury awarded prizes to 25 individuals and organizations for projects such as community databases and immigrant newscasts. Although all the first-year winners were Americans, the News Challenge is open to innovators from any country and of any background.

Bottom Line: Executable Ideas

This is actually a common trait of the three challenges: You don't need to be a scientist to participate in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, nor a journalist to compete for the Knight money. Ideas are what matters. Executable ideas, that is. This is no time for blue-sky dreaming. All three challenges seek realistic, achievable ideas and designs and explicitly intend the prize money to be used to bring the winning concept to the next stage of development or to market.

Innovation competitions and awards are nothing new, but they are a growing trend. Many have been inspired, no doubt, by the success of the Ansari X-Prize, which saw teams compete for the first private manned craft to reach space twice in two weeks. (The $10 million prize went to Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne team in 2004). The X-Prize itself has now been expanded to push scientific and technological advances in other fields, and similar challenges have been issued by a variety of organizations, from the Defense Dept.'s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (for the development of autonomous robotic vehicles) to the three outlined above.

But the success of the X-Prize isn't the only thing driving the trend. At its core, it reflects a change in how innovation happens. Long-term corporate research and development is declining, structured and slow traditional approaches are weakening, and at the same time we are witnessing the Internet-fuelled rise of open, nimble —and fast—innovation methods. In this perspective, challenges could become a future organizing principle for open innovation.

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