Over the past 12 months we’ve been working closely with Nesta’s Centre for Challenge Prizes to design a set of 10 prizes for the European Commission. Our scope was broad – identify technical challenges or problems that require technological solutions.

It’s been an intense year with over 100 expert interviews, several dozen topics reviewed and a lot of lessons learned along the way. While the topics of the prizes are still under wraps, we thought we’d share some of the key things we learned from this process of finding good problems and transforming them into ambitious prizes. Here goes:

  1. New, potentially disruptive technologies are often clouded by technical language which may limit their wider adoption. A prize can be helpful to clearly articulate the technology, offer legitimacy and introduce it to different communities.

  2. Designing a prize that would operate in a billion-dollar industry is tough because million-dollar incentives can easily get lost in billion-dollar oceans. But financial incentives are not the only benefits of a prize. A prize can also raise awareness of the shortcomings of well-established technologies and potentially motivate innovators to fix them.

  3. At a completely different scale, we designed prizes for technologies that are currently at a very low level of maturity but could potentially revolutionise entire fields. A prize can be helpful as a way of defining a common list of success criteria that people could work towards, as well as raising awareness. This would allow for a fair comparison of solutions and support future development.

  4. Prizes can also shed light on who is working on a problem and how much real progress they have made. For one of the prize topics the experts we consulted said that, for decades, innovators who claimed to have solved a particular problem had also failed to translate their discoveries into reliable, marketable solutions. What they did manage to do, however, was to create the impression that the problem was solved and therefore dissuaded others from attempting their own solutions. A prize in this area would have the opportunity to open up the challenge to a wider audience of problem-solvers, set a clear deadline, and require those working on solutions to be upfront about the status of their innovations.

Drawing a line under these findings, what stands out is the need to ensure that the problems we are trying to solve are good ones. By ‘good’ we mean genuine problems that are clearly defined, problems that address a real need, and that stand a reasonable chance of being solved with the resources at hand. We’ve written about this before, but finding ourselves face-to-face with this conclusion once again points to the fact that defining a good problem requires asking the right questions and no small amount of effort. We will be spending this year looking at ways to formalise this process of finding good problems. Stay tuned!