By Eugene K. Chow and Joe DeLaTorre — Fellows, Office of Innovation, State of New Jersey
Open innovation challenges — an open call to find the best ideas, products, or solutions around a particular question, problem, or issue — have become increasingly common among businesses and governments to foster innovation. While theoretically egalitarian, long application processes, narrow outreach and lack of creative recruiting strategies limit participation.
In May, the NJ Office of Innovation, the RSA, and The Workers Lab kicked off the Future of Work Accelerator, an open innovation challenge to recruit innovators whose work advances New Jersey’s workers’ health and safety, improves access to benefits, strengthens training opportunities, and bolsters workers’ voices.
To realize a truly inclusive initiative, this NJ Future of Work Accelerator team took four key steps to recruit participants that reflected the great diversity of the Garden State. As a result, more than half of applicants identified as people of color or women.
First, the Accelerator team created an application that asked for just enough detail about the innovation for the team to evaluate the program, but didn’t place an unnecessary time and resource burden on applicants. The application needed to be streamlined enough to allow resource strapped organizations and impacted workers to submit ideas in their free time.
Second, to help overcome hesitation or intimidation — particularly among underserved communities of color — the project created a nomination process to boost participation. Too often individuals and organizations do great work without recognition and assume certain opportunities are not right for them. The nomination process opens the door to the kind of peer and community validation that encourages participation.
Third, to reach a diverse pool of workers and innovators, the Accelerator team developed an extensive outreach campaign and cast as wide of a net as possible. We engaged a range of organizations and actors, including tech start-ups, think tanks, academics, worker-owned cooperatives, unions, grassroots organizations, and most importantly, organizations connected to under-represented groups.
We also leveraged email lists from previous outreach campaigns, social media, and created a community toolkit that we distributed to local leaders so they could amplify the opportunity through their respective networks. The outreach campaign touched nearly 2 million people and sent over 1.6 million emails alone.
Finally, the Accelerator team proactively identified individuals and groups that would be a good fit for the Accelerator and met one-on-one to answer questions and encourage them to apply.
We received nearly 120 applicants from an array of sectors and walks of life. 53% of lead applicants were women, 55% identified as a person of color, and several identified as LGTBQ. In the next week, the project team will announce the 20 innovators that were chosen to participate in the Accelerator — a 9-month program where they will receive coaching, connections to national experts, introductions to funders and peers, and the opportunity to pilot worker-centric programs and practices in New Jersey.
New Jersey’s novel use of open innovation challenges demonstrates they can be used to realize larger goals while also advancing diversity and inclusion.