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What are we learning about innovation prizes?

With age-old and new development challenges facing us, we need to find creative solutions. In this blog post, we explore the potential of innovation prizes and lessons learned from implementing them within the UKAid-funded Ideas to Impact programme.

Tuesday 15 August 2017, Lorenza Geronimo

The world is changing faster than ever before: from the way we communicate, work, and share and consume information, to the wider environment and global weather patterns. To keep up we need to be responsive, adaptive and innovative.

The development field is no different. The Conference on Financing for Development, which took place in 2015 in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, recognised the necessity of innovation to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As the world grapples with old and new challenges, we are testing the potential of innovation prizes within the Ideas to Impact programme to stimulate creative solutions to social issues and help achieve the SDGs.

This is the first application of prizes to the development sector, which traditionally relies on grant funding. Prizes aim to induce the development of ideas, tools or technologies, paying a reward (usually cash) upon successful achievement of a predefined aim.

Unlike grants, their criteria do not outline the type of solver, programme, model and output and the resolution of a problem is open to all, including ‘unusual’ potential solvers. Consequently, more room is left for creativity.

Three primary takeaways

While conclusive evidence on the value and use of innovation prizes will only emerge at the end of the programme in 2019, we can already draw three key lessons based on our experience:

1. Know your local context and stakeholders

As shown by the Sanitation Challenge for Ghana, a close working relationship with a local partner, IRC in this case, and the support from the national government are essential to a prize’s success.

Meanwhile, our collaboration with the Kenya Meteorological Department has increased the visibility of the Climate Information Prize and has aided its success so far. The first stage of the competition, the Wazo Prize, has been awarded to Pawa Farm. This innovative virtual agro-weather advisory platform provides timely, relevant and usable weather information to farmers in Kenya, increasing their responsiveness to climate change.

These relationships and networks have ensured that the design of both the Sanitation Challenge for Ghana and the Climate Information Prize in Kenya is relevant. This also allowed us to create strong links to the prize participant community and identify and understand those who will benefit from the winning solutions in these countries.

In April 2016, first place Wazo Prize winner Sam Owilly received his Kenyan shilling 1.5 million (GBP 10,900) cash prize at the Climate Information Prize Conference in Nairobi for developing Pawa Farm, an innovative virtual agro-weather advisory platform.
In April 2016, first place Wazo Prize winner Sam Owilly received his Kenyan shilling 1.5 million (GBP 10,900) cash prize at the Climate Information Prize Conference in Nairobi for developing Pawa Farm, an innovative virtual agro-weather advisory platform.

2. Cast your net wide and know your pool of participants

A primary benefit of innovation prizes is their ability to reach many potential solvers. Casting your net wide can attract new participants with innovative ideas. Meanwhile, understanding which type of solvers you should target and how to incentivise them helps to attract the right attention to a prize and results in workable solutions.

The target group of participants in the Sanitation Challenge for Ghana, albeit small, was well defined and easy to reach: the local and district government staff from the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs) of Ghana. It is exciting to see that so far 17 MMDAs have completed stage 1 of the competition, will all proceed to stage 2 and implement the liquid waste management strategies that they had developed in their local communities.

‘For me, the essence of this [competition] is to challenge the MMDAs to develop costed and realistic plans that they can implement with local resources.’

– Issaka Balima Musah, County Manager, Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP)

3. Support applicants and level the playing field

Some of the prizes within Ideas to Impact include orientation and technical support workshops.

For example, within the Adaptation at Scale Prize, we are training women-led, community-based organisations, which are competing against larger NGOs, on how to monitor and report the implementation of their innovation. In other cases, we provide specific assistance to marginalised solver groups and support participants to generate external investment to help their enterprise reach more users and impact more lives.

In May 2015, the Adaptation at Scale Prize organised a one-day orientation workshop in Nepalgunj, Nepal, to provide potential applicants with guidance on the competition process.
In May 2015, the Adaptation at Scale Prize organised a one-day orientation workshop in Nepalgunj, Nepal, to provide potential applicants with guidance on the competition process.

A game changer?

The winning initiatives that are emerging from Ideas to Impact suggest that innovation prizes can stimulate creative solutions, but they are not a silver bullet that can magically be applied to any problem to find an instant fix.

A clear objective, a fairly large but well defined pool of potential problem solvers and an enabling environment are essential ingredients as is the willingness of participants to bear some of the costs and risks.

With the lives of the vulnerable and poor at stake, we need new solutions to create safer environments and livelihoods for now and the future.

To discover with us whether innovation prizes are the ultimate game changer in the development field, regularly check our Ideas to Impact website and follow @IdeastoImpact on Twitter, where we will share more lessons and evidence over the next two years.

On the same topic:

Download the paper ‘Innovation prizes: incentivizing innovative solutions to water and  sanitation challenges through prizes’, which was authored by the Ideas to Impact team and published in the July 2017 issue of Practical Action’s Waterlines

Waterlines publication is a refereed journal providing a forum for those involved in extending water supply, sanitation, hygiene and waste management to all in developing countries. It bridges the gap between research and practice, highlights information sources and promotes debate between different perspectives.

Cover photo: Hadija and her family with an Ensol solar lighting kit, Bariadi, Tanzania, #EnergyAfrica: Clean energy in Tanzania. Credit: Russell Watkins/UK Department for International Development.

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