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Problem-Solving with Open Innovation: Part 2 – Small Community Solutions

Craig Chambers

In part 1 of this post, we saw how governments can use prize competitions as a tool of open innovation, leveraging relatively small sums to harness the power of multiple organizations and individuals to generate solutions to thorny problems.

The principle of open innovation invokes Joy’s Law, named after Sun Microsystems exec Bill Joy: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”  Or stated another way by Richard Pettinger, University College of London: “In any given sphere of activity most of the pertinent knowledge will reside outside the boundaries of any one organization, and the central challenge [is] to find ways to access that knowledge.”

Government agencies with ambitious plans and big budgets, like NASA, NIH or state governments themselves, can often afford to take prize competitions through to completion of complex projects.  Even so, the costs are usually much less than they would have been under a traditional procurement where government foots the bill from beginning to end of a single, complete project.

Most governments can afford the first stage, “ideation” type of competition, where prizes of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars can be sufficient to attract quality participants. But for small governments that want to advance to trying out prototype solutions, the “hackathon” has become a cost-effective option[1].  Hackathons are the pop-up stands of innovation.  Their goal is to bring focused resources together for a short, intense period, usually a few days or less, to solve a specific community problem.

The most common hackathons attract “techies” with new ideas for using governments’ open data in new ways.  Sometimes fueled only by free pizza and recognition, these local innovators can often find solutions that were not apparent before, and in the process save agencies time and money.  An often-overlooked side benefit is the opportunity for government to engage directly with citizens and local businesses on urgent issues of common interest.

In June 2017, the Cincinnati city council joined with local business incubators Cintrifuse and Spry Labs to organize “Hacking Heroin”, a weekend-long event designed to expand the city’s options for dealing with the growing drug abuse crisis.  As reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer, the exercise attracted 50 people divided into nine teams, and included University of Cincinnati undergrads as well as Procter & Gamble employees.  After being briefed by police, first responders and health care experts, the teams went into solution mode and, in just over a day, developed working prototypes of applications that earned three cash awards, the largest of which was $2000. Funding for the event was raised from more than a dozen community business sponsors, including Microsoft and St. Elizabeth Healthcare.

Hacking Heroin was chronicled in Mitch Weiss’ and Sarah Mehta’s Harvard Business School case study, which identified key takeaways for governments seeking to get the most out of a hackathon:

  • Engage the target community beforehand to get support for the effort – you will need it to better understand the problem and to begin implementing the solutions
  • Don’t trivialize; issue bite-sized challenges with clear problem definitions – don’t take on world hunger or Middle East peace
  • Keep it tight & intense – 24-48 hours – this is the start of a process, not the end of it
  • Be realistic about the potential mismatch between existing data, processes and people and those of the hackers, and encourage them to find ways to connect and share
  • Create the right participation incentives (cash, recognition, food)
  • Think in advance about support + sustainability – what will you do with the results?

With the hackathon as an option for open innovation, even small cities and towns don’t need deep pockets, just some ingenuity and a challenge that everyone agrees is worth a joint effort by citizens, government and the business community.


[1] “the word ‘hack’ [in this context] is used to describe how multiple technologies can be used together in a new and innovative way. Teams of up to four people spend the weekend working on software and hardware solutions to real-world problems.” – from “Hacking Heroin”, Mitchell Weiss and Sarah Mehta, Harvard Business School case study 9-818-010, August 7, 2017