Making Government Work

How Competition Breeds Innovation

September 3, 2014
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How Competition Breeds Innovation
The FastFWD challenge is a competition in which entrepreneurs find innovative solutions to crime. Scott Olson/Getty Images
Several U.S. cities are using contests to discover answers to some of their biggest problems.

Most of us have probably heard the old adage about how competition always brings out the worst in people. While it can cause tension to run high, competition can also be a great way to push people towards a new level of creativity.

And that’s why some cities are harnessing that positive attribute of competition and using government-sponsored contests to bring social good to their communities.

For the past 10 years, Philadelphia has hovered between being the fourth and seventh most dangerous big city in the U.S., according to Governing. This year, after clocking in at number five, the city realized that something needed to change.

So the City of Brotherly Love launched the $100,000 FastFWD challenge – a competition in which entrepreneurs find innovative solutions to crime. The winners received $10,000 each and the opportunity to run a pilot program of their idea. The competition also encouraged the winning programs to collaborate with each other through complementary skill sets. Additionally, it united problems with problem-solvers and was a cost-effective alternative to the usual government procurement process, reports Governing.

This year, one of the winners was Jail Education Solutions. Created by a young entrepreneur whose father was incarcerated in California’s Folsom Prison, the program offers educational opportunities for inmates through tablet-based learning.

With all of the benefits, Philadelphia isn’t the only city hosting competitions.

Last year, New York City rain BigApps – a competition to create innovative apps that would make every New Yorker’s life a little easier. Among the winners: apps that find healthy food at nearby restaurants, locate good child care, calculate savings of installing different home solar-power options and teach software coding to kids.

While it may seem like a daunting task to launch these competitions, it’s actually quite simple. For the past five years, hundreds of these competitions have been held. By following these three principles, according to Governing, you can avoid the early struggles.

1. Identify the problem you want to solve before you create the prize, which should reflect your goals.

2. Prize competitions are best used when the problem has multiple solutions. This will inspire creativity and innovative answers.

3. Every participant needs to get something out of the contest not just the winners, so include mentorship or networking opportunities.

If there’s a problem that your city needs help solving, perhaps you should suggest to your local officials that they hold a contest. Chances are, the answers are right in your community.

MORE: What’s the Best to Spark Creativity Among City Workers?

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