11/09/2014 11:53 BST | Updated 10/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Why Sustainable Innovation Prizes Should Reward Collective Intelligence

By Lizzie Rivera

Forum for the Future and the Technology Strategy Board are exploring how competitions can reward collective intelligence, increasing the impact of funding for innovative projects.

Competitions are making a comeback. The Longitude Prize, X Prizes, Virgin Earth Prize and EU Horizon 2020 are among those offering vast sums of money as a reward for solving today's global challenges. Research suggests that prizes accelerate change by encouraging greater risk taking and sourcing winning ideas from outside the discipline most obviously connected to the challenge.

"Competitions offer innovators structure, focus, and importantly, a deadline to work towards", says Louise Armstrong, who works in the System Innovation Lab at Forum for the Future. "However, they typically play to individualistic instincts, rewarding one person or one team, when the likelihood is that the answers to today's huge sustainability questions will lie in a collection of solutions."

Forum for the Future and the Technology Strategy Board are working together to explore how to give competitions this 'additive' factor, and reward collective intelligence. "Competitions themselves need to experiment and fail in order to succeed", says Anna Birney, Head of Forum's System Innovation Lab. "Organisers will find that small amounts of time and money spent today will help larger prizes have more impact tomorrow."

For instance, in 2012, the Technology Strategy Board committed £250 million to innovative projects through 60 competitions across a variety of sectors. Overall, the programme is estimated to have delivered £6.71 additional value for every £1 spent. Almost all (98%) of the projects say they would not have gone ahead without this funding, implying that spreading smaller investments across a number of potential solutions leads to greater impact in the long run.

Not all the money should go into the solutions though. Funding is also needed for spaces in which people can develop ideas and work together, such as hack days or opportunities for end users to contribute to the design and development process.

This wider engagement is crucial, says Tris Dyson, Director of Nesta's Centre for Challenge Prizes - not only for the development of the winning solutions but for the public impact of the award. The focus of the Longitude Prize (antibiotics) was decided by public vote - but many people also raised questions around the aims of the competition, she says: "There has been a lot of debate around who should win. Plus people are asking if we should be holding this competition at all - another very interesting conversation to have."

Longitude's prize winner has access to a £10 million prize fund and up to five years to find a solution - but for all entrants there's value in the days leading up to the award, through interim support and simply the space for participants to work together. "Competitors often unite around the social purpose and lose sight of the fact that they're in a competition until the prize date draws near - by which time you could have had six months of support and testing", says Dyson.

Competition creators don't just set the parameters but also support contestants to see the bigger picture, and find the links between potential solutions - a process which takes time. "We sometimes forget that the structure of competitions, as containers for innovation, is almost as important as the ideas themselves", says Armstrong.

Dyson agrees: "You need a very specific finishing line, but not prescribe how you get there."