“The UK prime minister has announced a multi-million pound prize fund designed to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems” – but will this be a search for ‘magic bullets’ or an opportunity to pilot more systemic human centred approaches?

At the UK DESIS Network event held in Northumbria University last month, which explored the UK HE landscape in relation to opportunities for DESIS activity, Marco Zappalorto presented Nesta’s recent activities in the areas of social innovation and enterprise, including their management of the £14 million innovation fund, the first initiative from the Cabinet Office’s Centre for Social Action, which has been established by the Cabinet Office to support programmes that encourage people to create positive change through social action

Marco, also spoke about Nesta’s Centre for Challenge Prizes, which aims to use the mechanism of ‘inducement’ prizes, to meet defined challenges, with a focus addressing societal challenges. Following Marco’s presentation there was some discussion as to the effectiveness of this approach, including whether the competitive nature of challenge prizes is best suited to address societal issues, responses to which may require collaborative approaches to succeed.

It may be significant that Nesta use the term ‘challenge’ prize rather than ‘inducement’ prize to describe this approach to catalysing social innovation. Whilst inducement is sometimes a useful catalyst for delivery of the new, as in childbirth, it is typically a means to speed up natural processes, deployed only when allowing events to take their natural course would carry risks to survival. However, early inducement can also reduce chances of survival without the necessary resources to support the premature arrival. In the context of social innovation it is important that the products of such inducements are able to prosper without such extraneous support, or that they receive such support as is required to bring them to maturity, otherwise we run the risk of new proposals being unsustainable.

A further note of caution concerned the mechanism of the challenge prize, which typically defines the problem being addressed and (too often) the nature of the solution being sought. When narrowly defined in this way the ‘competition’ risks excluding those unpredicted solutions that may be (more) effective in addressing the challenges faced. For crowdsourcing to work to find solutions to societal problems the problem and the nature of its resolution must be defined appropriately, or left open to interpretation so that effective unpredicted proposals might emerge.

It is interesting then to read the announcement of the most recent challenge prize launched by Nesta last week.

The new prize, to be managed by Nesta, will be targeted at some of today’s biggest problems (to be decided by a public vote) – such as how to care for an ageing population, how to generate cheap and safe energy, and how to feed the world.

This announcement extends the notion of the challenge prize beyond the crowdsourcing of ‘solutions’ to predefined challenges to engage the public(s) in a crowdsourcing exercise to define the challenges to be met – and we assume the restrictions, or lack of, that will ultimately frame the crowdsourced responses to the challenges defined. This ‘public and collaborative’ approach to problem finding – as well as problem solving – is an interesting and welcome development. What remains to be seen is the openness that will be afforded to the nature of responses to the challenges proposed. Many challenge prizes focus on specified solution strategies such as product or technology oriented approaches, perhaps these approaches are thought to be more easily evaluated, or perhaps they serve the call issuers desire for productised innovation that can clearly be seen to lead to economic growth. What will be interesting here is whether there is scope to support piloting of social innovations that combine human centred approaches with ‘magic bullets’ of technological/product innovation. Find out more about the announcement here and let us know your thoughts below.

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