Crowdsourcing Life’s Challenges

by Caryn Nesmith on November 16, 2010


Past corporate use of challenges conjures memories in my Generation X mind of those Pepsi challenge commercials – that 1970s ad campaign where taste testers chose Pepsi over Coke.

Today, businesses, brands, artists, and governments use challenges as an increasingly popular way to crowdsource innovation. Seeking out the folks who dedicate themselves to a particular problem enables crowdsourcers to harvest top ideas at a modicum of development cost. Challenges help organizations build a community of interest, which sustains and empowers all of the individuals in that community.

Philanthropies and NGOs have been doing this for a long time. For example, the World Bank’s Development Marketplace (DM) began in 1999 as a grant competition to identify and fund innovative projects that could have a high impact on development. Several years ago, I attended one of their expos, which showcased 100 small-scale development ideas submitted by small nonprofits and individuals globally. DM has over the last 10 years given away $46 million dollars to fund over 1,000 innovative small-scale development projects worldwide.

The U.S. government has been increasingly employing this technique as well, galvanized by President Obama’s directive for transparency and innovation in government. In September 2009, the President released his Strategy for American Innovation and the subsequent Guidance on the Use of Challenges and Prizes to Promote Open Government was published in March 2010. launched in September as a one-stop shop for any government agency seeking to award prizes for competitive citizen crowdsourcing. Among the agencies currently crowdsourcing: the U.S. Army, which is seeking interactive solutions for virtual environments with a $25,000 prize; and the State Department, which launched Apps4Africa to leverage the rapid advancements in mobile technology in Africa.

Another crowdsourcing model pairs private funding with public problems. I recently attended  TEDxMidAtlantic in Washington, DC. Here, XPrize Vice President for Development Francis Beland discussed the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup Challenge, a $1.4 million competition designed to inspire innovative solutions that will speed the pace of cleaning up seawater surface oil. Throw private funding at a public problem and there is probably money and an investor is likely to read benefits in the technology created.

How can communicators like us benefit from crowdsourcing? Challenges and contests can serve as interactive and engaging tools for public information campaigns. They can give organizations a platform for publicizing problems while turning audiences into stakeholders: communities of interest that can be used to socialize ideas and discuss solutions. Crowdsourcing enables identification of key communicators who may start public conversations about the problems originally identified in the challenge. When considering tactics for a strategic communications campaign, crowdsourcing via challenges and contests could provide an effective, low-cost means for swarming a large group of problem-solvers around a problem.

I’ll continue to explore innovative ways crowdsourcing is affecting our world, how it enables innovation, how it fosters communities of interest, and how it solves problems both big and small. Stay tuned.

Caryn Nesmith is a senior strategist at The Rendon Group specializing in Latin America.  A former journalist, Caryn has also served in Iraq for TRG.  She can be reached at

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