October 16, 2010

Government especially needs external ideas

NASA has been using prizes to attract external sources of innovation for several years. Not only is it helping attract innovative ideas for manned space flight, but it’s also providing a treasure trove of research information on crowdsourcing for researchers like Karim Lakhani, as this NASA press release Wednesday spelled out:
WASHINGTON -- NASA and Harvard University have established the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL), which will enable software developers to compete with each other to create the best computer code for NASA systems.

The lab will be housed at Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science under the direction of Principal Investigator and Harvard Business School Professor Karim R. Lakhani, a leading scholar on distributed innovation and crowdsourcing. London Business School Professor Kevin Boudreau, an expert on platform-based competition, will be the chief economist of the NTL.

Under the NTL initiative, Lakhani and Boudreau also will conduct basic empirical research on the appropriate contest design parameters that yield the most effective solutions in a tournament setting. This will enable the routine use of innovation tournaments as a problem solving approach within NASA and the rest of the public sector. Harvard will collaborate with TopCoder Inc., a company that administers contests in software architecture and development, to manage and conduct the tournaments.

Lakhani and Boudreau have previously worked with challenge implementation companies to launch three experimental competitions using problems from the Harvard Medical School's Clinical and Translational Science Center and NASA's division of Space Life Sciences. Results from the experiments demonstrated the ability to deliver high performing solutions and extend the concept of innovation tournaments to scientific and engineering contexts.
Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant LeapAt times during its 50 year existence, NASA was one of the most innovative places in the Federal government (next to DARPA and the NSA). Now that it’s shifting away from running a LEO bus service back to interplanetary exploration, it seems to be recovering its interest in innovation and new ideas.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this approach could be more widely adopted by the government? In a limited way, it is. PatentlyO blogger Dennis Crouch notes that the administration’s CTO last month unveiled a website with 35 challenges and prizes, including:
  • Create nutritious food that kids like — $12,000 prize.
  • Reducing waste at college football games — school prestige award.
  • Best original research paper as judged by the Defense Technical Information Center.
  • Provide a whitepaper on how to improve reverse osmosis membranes — up to $100,000.
  • Digital Forensics Challenge
  • Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge (Create the best virtual world for the US Army) — $25,000 in prizes.
  • Advance the field of wireless power transmission — $1.1M for a team that can wirelessly drive a mechanical climber to 1 kilometer height at a speed of at least 5 meters/sec.
  • Strong Tether Challenge — create a material with 50% more tensile strength than anything on the market for $2 million.
The problem is that the challenges — and the site’s mission itself — seem more oriented towards PR victories than solving real problems.

The Challenge.gov website proclaims itself “a place where the public and government can solve problems together,” which is just silly PR spin. A better title would have been “an admission that government doesn’t have all the answers and needs better ideas from an involved citizenry.”

I mean if an innovative company like IBM or Intel or even Apple relies on open innovation to generate new innovative ideas, certainly one of† the largest, most bureaucratic and unresponsive organizations in the world should do so. (And I say this as an employee of one of the most dysfunctional bureaucracies in the developed world — the state of California.)

We’re Number #3! We’re Number #3! As best I can tell, there are 2.7 million Federal civilian employees, vs. 3.9 million in India. I can’t find the comparable number for China, but would assume that it’s comparable to India.

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