Designing an innovation contest to speed up change

Sweden is launching an innovation contest for sustainable mobility. This is Common Pool on diverse participation, the enemy of creativity, and the secret sauce to designing a challenge.

Jenny Lundgren 7 maj 2018

Sweden is launching an innovation contest for sustainable mobility, open for solutions from all over the world that fit the mobility needs of progressive property owners, cities, and employers. This is Common Pool’s CEO Jaison Morgan on diverse participation, the enemy of creativity, and the secret sauce to designing a challenge. 

Jaison Morgan, or Jai, first met with Olle Dierks from Swedish Incubators & Science Parks, and Lotta Lejon from the Swedish Energy Agency during a Mission Innovation meeting in Brussels in 2017. 

– Olle and Lotta explained how they were working to deliver challenge-based innovation for Sweden, and we both wanted to learn from each other’s experiences, says Jai.

Working with clients like NASA, the European Commission, and the MacArthur Foundation, Common Pool designs competitions to build communities of focused participants who have the skills and tenacity to solve complex problems. 

– We design scientific trials, innovation contests, and award programs, moving between technologically advanced projects and more social problems, like addressing homelessness in Los Angeles, says Jai.

Now Common Pool is taking on the transportation needs of Sweden. 

– We do this work all over the world. I’m excited to work with Sweden, to build a community of competitors and to generate results specific to your needs.

Shaping the edges of a movement

A Challenge from Sweden is initiating a sustainable mobility contest this coming fall.

Based on IDEO’s work in Sweden and built on a human-centered, challenge-driven approach, the contest is about finding new solutions and profitable business models that, in the long-term, will contribute to Sweden reaching a fossil-neutral transportation sector before 2030.

Why partner up with A Challenge from Sweden?

– We’ve been doing a lot of work in cleantech and climate change. What’s especially interesting about these two issues is that, despite all the bad news and people looking at how policies are being ignored, we have many reasons to remain optimistic, to celebrate progress. We continue to work in these areas, because they’re going to have a great impact in a relatively short amount of time. If the market is responding to consumer interest in cleantech and climate change with strong demand for electric cars, clean energy solutions, increasingly more efficient use of transportation systems through shared services and affordable alternatives, then we can speed up that process by introducing new incentives for industry to build on what’s already happening.

A competition is not the answer for everything, he says:

– But they shape the edges of a movement like this one.

Diversity is key 

– Whether working in outer space, addressing a local problem, or giving away a hundred million dollars, we’re applying the same methodology, Jai explains. By focusing on competitions which offer appropriate cash and non-financial incentives and which consider the implied costs on those who will spend their own time and resources competing, we can attract a wide range of solvers to apply themselves on behalf of our sponsors.

He refers to Common Pools three design principles: Open, transparent and fair.

– If we utilize these values, we’re able to attract more diverse participation. If a competition is open and based on the impact of your ideas, instead of where you’re from, what school you attended, or the connections that you have, then we can build a much wider audience and deliver a fair process, where only the best ideas surface to the top. This allows us to solve problems more efficiently and more democratically.

– When we study how really big problems are being solved, it’s about the ability to bring in people from different disciplines that can tackle a problem with a wider perspective, Jai explains.

He describes how Common Pool programs are more than competitions. They are designed to facilitate collaboration too.

– We believe that competition and collaboration are two sides of the same coin. The best way to collaborate is to give competitors the opportunity to meet and build upon each other’s experiences. Therefore, we deliver specific tools that facilitate exchange between our participants. Those tools only strengthen the competition. They ensure that our participants learn from one another and improve their problem solving abilities. Philanthropists, governments, foundations, and commercial interest rely on us to do more than just pick winners. They rely on us to foster and support communities of problem solvers, and community building starts with facilitating real connections.

Structure is the friend of creativity. What does that mean?

– When we design an application for a competition, we are asking questions and requesting information that allows anyone to freely express their best ideas, but the format of that application is important. One of the things we’ve learned after years and years of experience, is that when we just ask applicants to send an essay or a powerpoint, we don’t get the same level of creativity than if we provide them with a framework. The enemy of creativity is not structure; it’s a lack of structure. When you ask someone to “think outside of the box,” often it’s important to start by showing them that box. A painter needs a canvas; a jazz pianist needs a keyboard; a writer needs an alphabet. If we can deliver a structured application which reveals the need for information, that is important to our sponsors, then we’re empowering our participants to understand and respond to those needs. It’s our job to build that structure and then to get out of the way.

Human-centered design

Jai explains it’s all about local teams, and local understanding. 

– Whether dealing with a county, region, or city, we need to make sure local interests are a part of every solution. It doesn’t mean a breakthrough in China couldn’t be imported here in Sweden, but it does means that those solutions should be informed by local needs and local constituents.

He underlines that anyone looking to import a solution needs to understand who the stakeholders are.

– Very often we forget about that, we assume that solutions working in one context will work everywhere.

Common Pool is looking at human-centered design as an effective way to engage the end users of products and services, both in order to generate profit (or to satisfy their own self interests) but also to solve the bigger challenges that benefit everyone, Jai explains.

– If the buyer or the consumer can play a role in how new products and services find their way to the market, then we’re going to have a more scalable solution at the end of the day.

On the right side of history 

What about the future?

– Look at what’s happening in the world. Dialing-up an Uber at half the price of a taxi, and having that driver arrive in an electric car... that would have been science fiction even 10 years ago. The question for us today is not so much how to create change, because it’s already happening. The challenge is making it happen faster and more efficiently for everyone.

Governments shaping this emerging economy are challenged to build programs that benefit every citizen, and they need to make sure that policies are following the fast pace and high expectations of a new generation.

– I have two kids, ages 9 and 12. I think that this new generations’ understanding of mobility is radically different than mine. It’s hard to understand their expectations. Whether they will own a car or share a fleet of cars is now an open question. For them, an on-demand product or service to solve any need is not radical, it’s part of their everyday life. 

What’s going to happen in the next 10-20 years is exponential, he says.

­– Faster and cheaper is not enough; products and services need to be cleaner and can benefit more people than just those who can afford them. I believe our next generations are going to help us realize this potential. Remember... solutions are improving for us each and every day. We’re on the right side of history.

Sustainable Mobility as a Service

An international project initiated by A Challenge from Sweden to meet mobility needs of tomorrow.

A Challenge from Sweden

A platform for need driven innovation founded by the Swedish Energy Agency, and co-developed with Swedish Incubators & Science Parks.