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What Civic Innovation Contests Teach Tech Companies

Creative, new ideas can come from unexpected places. Tech companies should look outside the usual places for inspired, important products.

Silicon Valley prides itself on being creative above all else, but as the top tech companies get entrenched around their most successful products, it becomes difficult for them to meaningfully innovate beyond their current business. Consider how interest in wearable technology was originally fueled not by Apple, but through crowdfunding. Just as frustrating, major corporations flush with cash sometimes find themselves gratuitously innovating without a clear market in mind. (Consider all the head scratching over Google Glass.)

Struggling to refuel their creative fires, companies often look to competitors or consultants for new ideas. However, there is another, unexpected direction they should also be looking: civic innovation competitions. Sponsored by nonprofit organizations, universities, even whole cities and states, these contests are usually open to the entire public and invite anyone to submit proposals online to address pressing social challenges. Having worked with dozens of such organizations to launch contests like these, I often see ways these competitions can easily be retooled for use by for-profit companies that want new strategies for fostering creativity.

[Don't get left out of creating the next big idea. See Will IT Miss The Digital Wave?]

Here are just a few examples:

Drive transparency by competing to celebrate setbacks
Last year, the state of Colorado sponsored an online contest to celebrate local startups in a curious way. Launched by Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Glorious Failure contest challenged Colorado companies not to boast about their successes or grand plans for the future, but to openly discuss their biggest setbacks. The prize for this went to Rachio, creator of a WiFi-based irrigation system, which described in its submission the many difficulties it had building a prototype and taking it to market. By being so candid about its losses, the company offered important lessons for other firms in its position. (And for its pains, it won a cash prize and in-kind services -- a nice boost to keep the business going.)

Imagine if major tech companies took a clue from Colorado. All too often, divisions of the same corporation wind up competing against each other, or pass the blame when setbacks occur. What if, instead, they were rewarded for being transparent about their own failings so everyone across the organization could learn from them?

Creative competitions on behalf of different generations (or departments)
As tech companies evolve from startups to major corporations, two things tend to occur: Bureaucratization based around skillset (coding, content, infrastructure, etc.) and divisions based increasingly around age, with top executives in their 40s and older becoming more and more separate from the everyday experiences of the 20-somethings in the entry- to mid-level roles below them. I thought about this recently while discussing the MindDesign Challenge sponsored by Stanford Center on Longevity, in which 52 student teams from 15 countries competed to create new systems to benefit senior citizens. The finalist entries are a diverse range of ingenious solutions for helping the elderly, with fresh approaches across different specialties to solve ingrained challenges. (The winning entry was not an engineer or industrial designer, but a student from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.)

In a similar way, what if divisions of companies competed to invent solutions for each other -- or competed across generations -- by challenging the young staff to solve the managerial problems of older executives (and vice versa)?

Focus on the social problem, build the technical solution around it
As many analysts have pointed out, Silicon Valley creativity seems stymied by a self-reflexive insularity, with most of the top new startups building products and services that mainly benefit people like the wealthy, well-educated employees of the startups themselves. (A creative failing which also hurts top tech companies, since many startups are designed for acquisition.) A contest sponsored by Tufts University seeking solutions to combat rising obesity among school kids reverses this polarity, asking competitors to be creative about the needs of people likely to be very different from them. One of the two winning solutions, an online social game powered by physical activity, strikes me as a project that could very much be spun out into a successful app -- and, because it was primarily designed to address a pressing social need, launch with a much larger potential market than other games.

What if tech companies considered future ideas based not on how they might benefit themselves, but people and social challenges very much apart from their own experiences? (Which is to say, most of the world.)

I don't mean to suggest civic competitions are the ultimate solution for tech company creativity; after all, many of these contests wind up with ideas which, while interesting, aren't feasible. Then again, that's true of many products coming out of big tech today. The question is whether these companies are willing to disrupt their own internal processes for being creative with the same level of daring they started with.

If the world wasn't changing, we might continue to view IT purely as a service organization, and ITSM might be the most important focus for IT leaders. But it's not, it isn't, and it won't be -- at least not in its present form. Get the Research: Beyond IT Service Management report today. (Free registration required.)