Public challenges to kindle innovation: How one telegram forever changed public policy in Australia

The time-tested ingredients for succesful public calls for innovation

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Case study abstract

It was 10 December 1919 when the world first witnessed a flight manned by two Australians and two mechanics depart London and land in Darwin 30 days later. 

This chapter is about the most cost-effective, economically stimulating, and innovative public policy – and how the humble telegram enabled it. It explores and reflects on why challenges are inherently collective intelligence approaches from which the public sector can benefit substantially while they are simple and innovative. 

More importantly, it is a call out to encourage public leaders and officers to trust the ingenuity of the human mind and the serendipitous consequences that arise when those minds are given the opportunity to connect and make history.

Do’s and don’ts

From the example of the Great Air Race, and the more recent research of Nesta (2019) and the GovLab (2019), the following recommendations may be helpful for those considering a prize-backed challenge. 

1. Choose a compelling problem. 

“Designing a successful prize,” in Nesta’s view, “involves balancing a goal that is challenging enough with incentives and support that motivate teams to ensure the best ideas grow, evolve and make it to the end.” Nesta recommends focusing on problems in fields that are stagnant and have few players; problems that are neglected and could benefit from raising awareness; or urgent problems where add-itional attention is needed to accelerate progress. The GAR centered a problem that was immediately recognizable as relevant to a very large group – safe and efficient travel within the British Commonwealth – and harnessed excitement about aviation to bring fresh energy to this public need.

2. It’s not only about the money. 

As in the example of the Netflix prize, Noveck et al. (2019) propose that intrinsic rewards are often more powerful than extrinsic ones. While the money goal may help with the initial marketing – the headlines are easy to write – sustaining interest over a longer period may require stoking motivation in other ways, like recognizing progress publicly and animating interactions among the participants in a friendly and con-structive way. Noveck et al. (2019) note further that prizes do not have to be big. Rather, many organizations are having great success with small prizes designed to produce what are sometimes called “micro-innovations” – small creative shifts that are subtle but can add up to significant results. These micro-innovations “provide broad scale rewards to lots of people for contributing productively…They allow innovation to become a daily habit rather than an out-of-reach phenomenon for the select few who win big competitions.”

3. How a challenge is framed will determine how it is solved. 

Problem statements should not imply a specific solution. For example, in a challenge related to public health it is better to focus on desired outcomes – a lower incidence of malaria, for example – than on improvements to the existing means (“build us a better net”). In other words, the problem must be framed in a neutral way that allows innovators to seek their own solutions, rather than the ones the government currently deems most likely to solve the challenge. The abovementioned Freedom Flight’s problem definition serves as a clear example. By focusing on zero emissions, the number of passengers, and the time required, it enables creative thinking and is not prescriptive about any particular technology. The abstract definition of the problem also broadens the participation to different disciplines and fields that may have a fresh angle on the problem. As Page (2017) amply demonstrates, it is in the aggregation of diverse sources of expertise that the greatest collective intelligence emerges.

4. For especially complex challenges, think in stages.

Noveck et al. (2019) suggest that a two-stage challenge may be appropriate for problems whose solutions are particu-larly expensive or time-consuming. A two-stage challenge would involve a first phase to propose good ideas and a second stage to propose an implementation plan for those ideas. “The advantage to a two-stage challenge,” in GovLab’s view, “is that it leads to workable, shovel-ready solutions.”

5. Consultation before, feedback after, and transparency throughout. 

Challenges that successfully mobilize a large community are generally informed by a robust consultation process. Governments in particular are increasingly required to account for their decisions, ground them on publicly available evidence, and demonstrate that they are devoid of vested interests. A good practice for those designing challenges, therefore, is to engage with the relevant communities regularly to consult on their plans and policies. Noveck et al. (2019)recommend that an upfront and transparent decision be made about how winners will be judged, according to what criteria and by whom – whether by experts, peers, or both. This should ideally include a commitment on how the winning idea will be capitalized upon by the public entity, and under what terms. The GovLab team additionally recommends using an online platform that provides data and tutorials to prospective participants and makes it easy to see and comment on others’ submissions.By ensuring a fair and transparent process, in summary, prize-backed challenges can enable liberal societies – where information flows and is freely shared – to coalesce around shared problems and create level fields for innovation to thrive (see Fig ure 23.1).

Read the full case study “Public challenges to kindle innovation: How one telegram forever changed public policy in Australia”

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