Why so many competitions?

Finding solutions to support development has always been a fraught experience, and it seems that organisations are calling on your help.

Just in the last few weeks, Google has launched 10^100 in which is offering $10m to five ideas that “help as many people as possible”. Meanwhile, Nokia is ‘Calling all innovators‘, asking developers to submit mobile solutions which will “Make a difference” to the environment or “pioneer and monetize services impacting the daily lives of millions in developing nations” and offering up to $25K for the winners. How do we interpret this constant need to call on the Northern public when it comes to solutions (and particularly technical ones) in the South?

For the organisations involved there is no doubt that this drums up extra publicity, both within the blogosphere and the mainstream press. For Google, the competition coincides with its 10th birthday and conveniently reminds us that Google is still “not doing evil”. Nokia nudges mobile developers to take a break from java development for a while and chance their arm using Nokia’s Symbian platform instead.

Both competitions imply that change and impact in the South is simply a matter of the big idea or piece of software that will solve a problem. But look at Nokia’s list of potential ideas and one becomes a bit more skeptical, whilst it talks breathlessly of ‘holy grail’ solutions, it reads like a list of existing ICT4D developments

Nokia: “Imagine if an application could help relief workers reallocate resources in real time for disaster-torn areas”
– Stop imagining! You could partner with Vodaphone on the EpiSurveyor or use Frontline SMS
Nokia: “What if a mobile device could test the potability of water”
– It can! Perhaps you should talk to there guys

Nokia’s talk of “social responsibility” seems uneasy. They pinpoint to
solutions where partnerships to add impetus to existing solutions would surely
be the best way forward, rather than more technical solutions doing virtually the same things.

For Google the small print is interesting, “once we’ve selected up to five ideas for funding, we will use an RFP process to identify the organisation(s) that are in the best position to implement the selected ideas. We will be providing funding to these, organisations to implement the ideas”. So to offer a solution is not to be able to provide any input into its implementation, leave that to the experts. This suggests a curious future relationship, the competition winner is taken out of the loop, whilst their solution is presumably morphed into something more useable by the implementors. Which makes you wonder, why bother with the whole gathering process in the first place?

There’s no doubt that from time to time, one of these competitions unearths an idea that has legs, and might progress onto better things. But the question if whether the public competition is the best approach to unearthing and implementing ideas and solutions in the South. Competitions begin to look like publicity campaigns which are having the added effect of giving a skewed view of what solutions for development entail.

[Disclaimer: I never win competitions!]

2 thoughts on “Why so many competitions?

  1. Hi Chris

    Interesting post, and certainly touching on something I’ve been thinking more and more about lately. And I’m not just agreeing with you because FrontlineSMS is one of my projects. ;o)

    I wrote an article for the Berkman Centre a couple of weeks ago, which addresses the kinds of issues you raise here. Not so much the competitions issue, but one of a need for the “social mobile” space to look long and hard at what it’s trying to achieve. Re-inventing wheels and too much talk are just a couple of symptoms of what seems to be happening.

    You can read the Berkman “Publius” piece here:

    I’ll be interested in seeing how this whole debate goes. If the BOP target for many social mobile projects are to truly benefit from mobile technology, then something really does have to give.


  2. Chris,

    I feel there are a few things at play here:

    1- Competitions: Idea-soliciting competitions for grant funds are not a new phenomena, but are (I believe) a good way to gather a great number of ideas in order to maximize the usefulness of the funds. Details of each do vary it seems. With respect to Google’s decision-making, it also strikes me as odd that a “wisdom of crowds” approach is not being adopted over designated experts for decision-making. However, once the ideas are solicited, how to turn competitive efforts into collaborative ones?
    (Not to defend Google, but there is a possibility that the idea-generator is not an implementing organisation, and therefore there would be logic in then choosing the “best” implementor.)

    2- The emergence of private sector donors: Especially those operating in the ICT space, it is interesting to observe how they influence and change the typically publicly-funded aid space. Can this be considered CSR? Or is there a shift to expand the scope of what is CSR?

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