Innovation, From Outer Space to Overflowing Sewers

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.

Now, federal agencies have joined in this long-standing endeavor. Agencies have the authority to run small- and large-scale prize competitions that provide several benefits:

  • 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.

The EPA Innovation Team tests new approaches beyond those possible with traditional agency capabilities, and we’ve worked to implement a competition framework for the entire agency.

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.

EPA worked with the local sewer districts around Cincinnati to develop the prize competition specifications. In turn, those end users are interested in serving as test beds for the winning solutions.

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.

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Terrence (Terry) Hill

I’m a big believer in the process (, where prizes are offered to the best innovators. You can sort the challenges by agency to see your agency’s challenges (mine had 2).

We need to have a similar process for tapping the innovative talents of government employees.

Dustin Renwick

Interesting idea, Terry. Are you imagining something like an online clearinghouse? Agencies could post tasks and federal employees would have some flexibility (10-20%) to work on projects outside their home agency?


GovConnect is coming soon and it will allow employees to work on projects outside their normal duties. I’m not averse to maybe offering an award to govies too. Innovation is critical to truly engaging employees

linda perry

we have a website “ideaScale” and are asked to submit our ideas but there is no reward and so far we have not seen implementations of ideas, here at the Patent Office.

Dustin Renwick

Linda – we have used a similar platform for ideation initiatives here at EPA. I agree that the most important part of hosting this kind of activity is the follow-up by management. If employees don’t see some commitment to using/implementing their ideas, engagement drops off rapidly.