Our Perspectives

Open Innovation Challenges find new perspectives and solutions to complex problems


Students in Moldova are providing feedback on ideas developed during the EduSoft Challenge. Photo: Moldova

In this blog series, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on innovation in development practice.

This week, UNDP launched a new policy.

Another set of rules is usually not an occasion to celebrate. But this one is, because it mirrors what innovation can look like.

UNDP tackles the toughest development challenges in the world. And we’re committed to finding the best-fit solutions to those challenges.

Sometimes the best ideas come from outside our walls. The new policy formally makes “Open Innovation Challenges” a part of UNDP’s procurement rules, so offices can find and fund great solutions from any source.

An Open Innovation Challenge is a structured process to find new solutions. Broadly it goes like this: identify a development problem, create and publicize an Open Innovation Challenge with prizes for solving that problem, get the most capable participants to compete, and offer the reward to the winner.  

Such an Open Challenge can also help to reveal more about the problem itself.

Open Innovation Challenges – or “Challenge Prizes” – date back at least as far as 1714. That year, with the first-ever Longitude Prize, the British Government invited all citiens to take a crack at solving one of the greatest scientific challenges: how to pinpoint a ship’s location at sea by locating its longitude. That prize yielded numerous innovations in seafaring over the following century. Over the last ten years, the private and then the public sectors have spearheaded a renaissance in Open Challenges.

Can this method work to address the development challenges UNDP and our partners face? To find out, UNDP Bosnia partnered in 2013 with the UK-based innovation fund NESTA. The challenge: designing a renewable – and financially sustainable – energy solution for off-the-grid communities in Bosnia. The Challenge found the best-fit solution after field-testing the most promising entries and learned new information about the nature of the problem. (Read about the lessons we identified here and here, and the evaluation of our innovation work in Eastern Europe & Central Asia 2012-2013 here.)

Since that time, other UNDP offices have further tested Open Innovation Challenges. Examples include a regional Innovating for Peace Challenge for social enterprises in 2015, covering Afghanistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines. A ‘Tech for Citizen Engagement’ challenge across Eastern Europe and the Arab States stimulated ideas about new forms of participation, and the Malawi Innovation Challenge Fund incubates new ideas in agriculture and manufacturing in that country.

These experiments, demonstrated that Open Challenges help UNDP, Governments and other partners to attract more talent to solve the thoughest development problems, and in the process they stimulate markets and they manage risk by opening up the competition process for the best solution In the process, many more people get invovled in development challenges. Running an Open Challenge is a craft. UNDP’s Innovation Facility is supporting our offices and Government partners to design and run these processes, particularly in planning the necessary follow-up work. This includes testing the winning solution to bring it to larger scale.

If you are interested in finding out more about Open Challenges and how it might help solve problems you are working on, get in touch: open.challenges@undp.org.

Benjamin Kumpf Blog post blog series Capacity development Development Effectiveness Innovation Effective development cooperation

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