Going where the innovation happens

What we learnt from a ‘Minimum Viable Prize’

At Good Things Foundation, we think innovation happens on the ground. It happens in the community centres that we work through, with real people finding answers to problems that affect them there and then.

The answers to the problems of digital and social exclusion lie not in an office in Sheffield, but out in the network, on the front line. As a team, Design and Innovation see our role as identifying, incubating and sharing innovative work that happens on the ground so that other people can learn from it and use it.

The hard bit is working out how to identify that innovation in a network of 3,000 centres working across the country with different communities and different needs.

That’s why we’re developing a challenge prize for community innovation to take us where the innovation really happens.

We’ve started small — with a kind of ‘minimum viable prize’ — to test the following assumptions:

  1. There’s lots of innovation happening at a community level that we don’t know about

2. That innovation could be developed and applied elsewhere

We wanted to use this minimum viable prize to cast the net wide and see, for as cheaply and quickly as possible, what we had to work with. Guided by Nesta’s advice, we took the idea of a challenge prize to it’s most basic form.

‘Innovation’ can be a restrictive label to apply to problem-solving, elevating the status of an idea and adding an aura of exclusivity. We settled instead for the simple: ‘good ideas’.

A minimum viable prize

We offered 10 prizes of £200 each — just for sharing a good idea. We asked for those ideas in no more than 500 words through a simple Google Form and advertised it with the network over three weeks.

We asked applicants to outline:

  • The problem or issue they faced
  • What they tried out and why they think it worked
  • What happened as a result

We used an internal panel to assess applications and judged applications on the extent to which they:

  • Clearly identified a problem
  • Outlined an effective and suitable solution
  • Evidenced that it worked

And the potential to develop or scale the solution so that other community centres could benefit.

The results

As with any worthwhile minimum viable exercise, we confirmed a few things and learnt a lot.

Hazelmere Library has “hosts”and “guests” instead of “tutors” and “students” at their Afternoon iTea sessions

From Bake Off-themed Afternoon iTea at Hazlemere Library to lessons in voice activation for new cancer patients at Nuneaton’s Women’s Multicultural Resource Centre, there was lots to be inspired by.

However, we got fewer responses than we’d anticipated: just 20, meaning we failed to confirm our first hypothesis:

  1. There’s lots of innovation happening at a community level that we don’t know about

We didn’t disprove it — but our minimum viable prize showed us that our approach wasn’t quite right. Some of the reasons we think this might be are:

Challenge prizes need a challenge — a problem to solve. ‘Good Ideas’ casts a wide net — but it’s too broad. We might have been too minimal in this particular MVP! We got a real mix of what we considered to be genuinely good ideas, that were new and tackled a problem from a different angle, and things we considered to be ‘doing what’s expected well’. In a second iteration we will need to make sure that we define the problem we want to be solved or the outcome we are looking for, while encouraging centres to be as imaginative as they want in their approaches to solving those problems.

Ask ‘what would you do?’ not, ‘what have you done?’ — evidence of past successes only offers half the picture. Centres are constrained by what they’re able to do with time and resources. The prize money could have more effectively spent asking centres what they would do with £200, rather than what they had already done. Design agency, The Public Office, ran a micro challenge prize with Essex Libraries which found that while the prize money was symbolically important to ‘allow’ libraries to do innovative work, it was rarely necessary for them to spend the money to make their idea happen (The Public Office: 2015). In a second iteration, we need to use the prize and an enabler to give centres license to try things they might not otherwise try.

Prize money should reward activity not applications. Was £200 too little to motivate a response? Were we marketing the prize in the wrong way or at the wrong time of year (in the run up to Easter)? Was our ask too vague to be helpful? Or, to take a more cynical view, is the innovation we were looking for just not happening?

Experience of being in regular touch with centres and having first hand experience of witnessing innovative ideas in practice told us that the last point was unlikely. Centres innovate all the time to solve problems. In many ways, they’re in the business of problem-solving. What was it then about the prize that didn’t appeal to centres? £200 for 500 words seemed like a good deal — but it wasn’t enough to encourage lots of applications — and we shouldn’t have been thinking of it in those terms anyway. In a second iteration we will need to use the money to incentivise activity, not the application process.

From the 20 applications, we got some good ideas that had the potential to scale, confirming our second hypothesis:

  1. Innovation could be developed and applied elsewhere

However, these ideas weren’t ready to scale automatically. It was clear from the applications we received that any future challenge prize would need to include an incubation period in order to understand and develop an idea into a model. In a future iteration we need to run an incubator programme with successful prize winners to develop their solutions.

What’s next

We want to run a second iteration of a small challenge prize before moving on to a larger value prize. In this second iteration, we’ll ask centres to come up with an approach to solving one or two specific challenges and offer them £2,000 towards delivering that solution.

We’ll use this to further test our two hypotheses and to refine and develop communications and marketing around the prize. We’ll adopt the learnings from the MVP:

  • Challenge prizes need a challenge
  • Ask ‘what would you do?’ not, ‘what have you done?’
  • Prize money should reward activity not applications

But we won’t — at this stage — include the include the incubator phase in this.

Ahead of the prize being launched, we’d like to run some rapid ideation sessions at an event with centres. Centres could pitch problems they have ahead of the event and we’ll select some to come up with solutions to during the event using a range of design and ideation techniques. This would raise the profile of the prize with centres, generate some examples and get a selection of centres thinking in a creative way.

Then what?

Ultimately, we hope to move onto a more significant prize that will run for a year and could award a small number of centres up to £20,000. We’d include an incubator phase in this, where Good Things Foundation would help to develop the idea into a scalable approach.

We’d also use the incubator phase to help develop the successful community organisations, teaming them with mentors and growing their capacity to drive systemic social change at a local level.

We want to use this challenge prize to not only to develop solutions to specific problems but to develop an approach to systemic social change and place-based funding through the Good Things Foundation network.