Crowdscience: 10 Must Do's to Generate Innovative, Catalytic, and Disruptive Ideas... Everytime

The key problem would-be crowdsourcers face: lack of methodology. Without a sure-fire recipe for success, initiatives run the risk of becoming a waste of time or a stale marketing program.
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Last fall, President Bill Clinton and TIME magazine named the Hult Prize one of the top five ideas changing the world, recognizing its innovative platform that engages millennials worldwide to create viable social enterprises. Since launching the Hult Prize four years ago, there has been a surge of similar idea challenges, start-up weekends, and hackathons that aim to tap the crowd for social good. More than simply crowdfunding donations or crowdsourcing volunteers, the Hult Prize and other efforts -- including initiatives such as Pepsi Refresh, Ideo's OpenIdeo challenges, JPMorgan Chase's Technology for Social Good and the United States' -- seek not money or time but rather ideas and solutions that have a positive social impact.

Whether in the private sector, academia, or government, it seems that crowdsourcing solutions is the next big thing. Even the Arab world has caught wind of crowdsourcing, and as an Arab-American I can attest that when the Arabs start doing, it is officially "big." I was recently invited to talk to community leaders, government officials, and municipality leadership by the leading social enterprise in the Middle East, Silatech. The topic I spoke on: new and innovative models that can promote youth entrepreneurship in the Arab world. But I cautioned them that the biggest hurdle they will face with social impact crowdsourcing is not building a website or finding applicants. The key problem would-be crowdsourcers face: lack of methodology. Without a sure-fire recipe for success, initiatives run the risk of becoming a waste of time or a stale marketing program.

I am often asked about the "secret sauce" of the Hult Prize, and the answer is that crowdsourcing ideas for social good is less of an art than a science. Over the past four years, through multiple iterations, we at the Hult Prize have developed a well-defined process that we call crowdscience: a set of rules that reliably produce innovative ideas that can be implemented to solve large-scale social problems.

1. Identify a great challenge that lots of important people care about. This is easier said than done, however if you get it right you can get the attention of well-known people who will help you gain media recognition or become a benefactor. Not only will a great challenge attract important people, it will attract and motivate participants.

2. Define the Boundaries. Open-ended challenges are rarely successful. Make sure you come up with viable boundaries that will keep your participants engaged and on track. For our latest challenge on food security we set the boundaries to urban areas, which focused participants but also ensured that solutions were targeted to areas where they could have the greatest impact.

3. Come up with a specific and bold stretch target. Organizers must frame the challenge in a quantifiable format, such a number of people affected in a given number of years. Having a stretch target will make sure solutions have an impact, inspire your participants, and also provide criteria for judging.

4. Create a competitive environment. Nothing brings out top-tier results like the blood, sweat, and tears of fierce competition. This starts with the participant application and should be installed in the DNA of your challenge. Gamification, through use of multiple levels or rounds of competition, and recognition at each stage, will help develop this. You can also use regional focuses, demographic pairings, or other tracks to inspire competition within the event.

5. Force the use of teams. Large social problems are complex; the reality is that a single person will not have the expertise to identify a solution and come up with a robust implementation plan. Diverse teams can harness "creative abrasion" to generate solutions that no single individual could develop.

6. Keep the barriers to entry low. One thing I cannot stand is an application process that makes a potential applicant want to run for the hills before they even start. The point in early stages is to encourage as many ideas as possible from as many different people as you can. If your application to even get started includes a scavenger hunt or an endless list of questions, you should start over.

7. Provide a tool-kit. Once your applicants become participants, provide a framework and tool-kit to ensure success. Some of the top innovation firms like IDEO and the IXL Center for Innovation provide university students with tool-kits that help them map out the innovation process. As an organizer, you don't have to spend time or money recreating the wheel, use existing platforms and borrow tool-kits.

8. Form a network of mentors, coaches, judges, and enablers. What good is a challenge if those competing are restricted to the boundaries of their own networks? That is not the ideal recipe for an innovative breakthrough. It is your responsibility as an organizer to provide high-quality, engaging leaders that can help refine, pressure test, and rollout the great ideas that are generated through your initiative. Coming up with the next big idea is hard. Participants will be tempted to give up, and it is the people in this network that will provide the right encouragement and enthusiasm to keep participants and their ideas alive.

9. Define the metric of what constitutes good. This step is critical. The last thing you want is hundreds or even thousands of participants who come up with partial ideas, or as one of my mentors calls them, "idea fragments." You want to be sure submissions are complete concepts and answer key questions across the entire innovation value chain.

10. Offer more than just a prize. Probably one of the biggest misconceptions -- big purses do not lead to more and better entries. Offer your participants a life-changing experience through intangibles like recognition, community, and an inspirational challenge.

Follow these 10 steps and you will be on your way to designing a crowdsourcing platform that will have a disruptive impact on the social impact issues you aim to solve -- every time.

Ahmad Ashkar is the CEO and Founder of the world's largest student competition and crowdsourcing platform for social good, the Hult Prize. Each year the Hult Prize, in partnership with President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative and the Hult International Business School, challenges millennials around the world to develop innovative social enterprises that aim to solve our world's most pressing issues. Regional rounds of competition are held each spring in Boston, San Francisco, London, Dubai, and Shanghai, plus an online-only round, with a final round held on the first day of the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting each fall. Regional and online winners are invited into the summer Hult Accelerator Program and given a one-year membership into the CGI. The top team takes home $1,000,000 in start-up capital to launch their new enterprise.

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