Prize competitions have led to incredible breakthroughs: naval navigation, architectural masterpieces like the Sydney Opera House, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and the commercialization of space travel.
One of the first examples began in 1418 in Florence, Italy, when town officials issued a contest to build a dome for Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral – commonly known now as the Duomo. A goldsmith won the day with a double-dome design. He created innovative lifting rigs and masonry patterns that could counteract the gravitational stresses on the building.
One of the major takeaways from this story is that contests not only solve immediate problems, but they also often spin off other innovations along the way to the winning solutions.
- Pay only for successful solutions that match the criteria set forth by the organizer
- Gather insights from diverse fields and outside expertise
- Spur investments from the private sector
In short, this innovation tool taps the creativity, passion, and ingenuity of the public.
One of EPA’s recent competitions focused on the problem of sewer overflows, a major water pollution concern. Heavy rain in urban environments can overwhelm sewer systems, which release 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into lakes and rivers each year in hundreds of cities across the U.S.
Real-time sewer sensors could provide data needed to more effectively monitor these events.
To be sure, prize competitions are only one tool among a wider set of innovative approaches to solving problems in the public sector. We might not build cathedrals, but we can drive new ideas and solve important problems for our modern era.
- Have you heard of the federal government’s prize competition authority?
- Has your organization used prize competitions in any way? What successes have you had?
- How could you implement the prize competition model inside your organization?
Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation Team in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.
Dustin Renwick is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.