Tuesday, April 16, 2013

VicHealth Seed Challenge and the history and potential for government challenges

VicHealth has just announced the start of the VicHealth Seed Challenge, where the agency is asking people from across the nutrition sector, fruit and vegetable industries, researchers, social innovators/entrepreneurs and the digital world to collaborate and seek solutions to the wicked problem:
"How do we improve fruit and vegetable supply and access, as well as develop and promote a culture of healthy eating in Victoria?"
The challenge takes the format of a competition, where VicHealth, with support from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, will initially select and fund the most promising ideas with a one-off investment to further refine and develop a business case.

From here, the two most promising ideas that demonstrate a fresh way of thinking will be selected to receive ongoing mentoring, coaching, business development and financial support of up to $100,000.

For more information about the VicHealth Seed Challenge, and upcoming information sessions on 1 May, visit its website: http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/seedchallenge

This type of challenge isn't new or unique in government - although it certainly qualifies as innovative in the way it involves the community in the process of addressing difficult, or wicked, problems and in how digital channels are being integrated into the challenge process.

In fact the first significant government challenge I am aware of began nearly 300 years ago in 1714, with the offer of the Longitude Prize by the British parliament.

This challenge offered a significant cash prize for the inventor who could come up with an accurate way to measure longitude at sea.

This had become a vital technology for an island nation reliant on its navy for protection and its merchant fleet to allow economic growth and to feed a fast growing population. At the time existing technology was not able to retain its accuracy with the rolling movement of ships.

The prizes ranged from £10,000 to £20,000 depending on accuracy - equivalent to several million dollars today.

The Longitude Prize created a whirlwind of innovation across the nation, with many people working to win the prize and the glory - however with the slow speed of technological advancement, the prize was not awarded until 1761 - 47 years later.

The winner of the prize, Yorkshire carpenter John Harrison, submitted his first project in 1730 and a second in 1735, however when trialled in 1741 neither model was able to compensate for centrifugal force, although they did compensate for gravity and ship motion.

His third attempt in 1759 introduced several major innovations such as caged ball bearings (still used today), however still proved inaccurate, but his fourth attempt in 1761, which resembled a pocketwatch, was successful and was awarded the £20,000 top prize.

In the three hundred years since the Longitude Prize, many governments have used challenges and prizes to encourage public participation in the progress of science, the development of physical structures and the solution of difficult social and economic problems.

Notable examples in Australia include the 1912 competition to design an 'Ideal City' as the capital of the country, leading to the selection of Walter Burleigh-Griffin's design for Canberra and the 1956 competition for the construction of a national opera house at Bennelong Point in Sydney, which led to the construction of the Sydney Opera House.

Jumping forward a few years, we've seen the arrival of the internet vastly increase the potential reach and flexibility of challenges for government, while significantly reducing the timeframes required to enter or the cost of running these challenges.

In the US the Federal Government has had a central online challenge platform in place for several years (challenge.gov), which has seen dozens of agencies hold close to 200 competitions.

In Australia the process has been far more piecemeal and conservative, with straight competitions (such as the photo competition I ran at the Department of Regional Australia, attracting well over 2,000 entries) being the norm - designed to engage citizens, rather than to source ideas or solutions from them.

We have seen some challenges recently tied to the open data movement - beginning with a broad MashUpAustralia challenge held by the Gov 2.0 taskforce in 2009 and more directed and specific open data challenges held most recently by the NSW government in the transport and health areas.

While digital is now the preferred channel for holding these challenges, due to the speed of engagement and low cost, it is a mistake to solely link challenges to open data, or to focus them purely on programming skills.

As the US has demonstrated via Challenge.gov, there are a vast array of issues where government-run challenges can add value in finding solutions, improving communication or developing new or better services - open data challenges have their place, but are only one subset of what is possible.

The VicHealth Seed Challenge is an example of one of the possibilities for government challenges in the digital age - where the challenge isn't about data, but about solving a known wicked problem, using all the tools available today - digital and otherwise.

I hope other governments pay attention to this great work by VicHealth and consider the history and potential of challenges beyond the small open data subset.

Government challenges can be a cost-effective way to solve wicked social, transport, economic and health problems - every agency and council should consider them, where relevant, within policy and service deliberations.

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