How to frame a city-based challenge

  • Olivier Usher

    Olivier Usher

    Lead, Research and Impact

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In Monday’s blog post, we explained the green light criteria. This is a simple set of questions that we at Nesta Challenges ask to check whether a problem is one that could be addressed using a challenge prize.

But brainstorming a challenge prize of course doesn’t usually start with applying these criteria. Instead, think of these questions as a way of checking whether your ideas are any good – and filtering out less-promising ones from your shortlist.

When we at Nesta Challenges try to come up with a shortlist of possible challenge topics, which we then test with the green light criteria, we like to focus on the ultimate impact we’re aiming to achieve. 

For an application to the Climate Smart Cities Challenge, a good place to start would be objectives set out in a city climate strategy, or in the sustainable development goals. These might be things that you need to address right now – but we find it can be quite liberating to think beyond the immediate problems your city has, and look to the longer term. What kind of city do you want to be 10 or even 20 years in the future? 

What are the big picture goals you’re aiming for? For example, do you want to decarbonise your city’s public transport vehicles by 2030? Reduce methane emissions from city landfill sites by 70% in 10 years? Double active travel over the next 20 years?

Once you’ve figured out what goal you want the challenge to contribute to, work back from the targets you’ve set: what are some specific barriers that lie in the path (and which you might be able to set a clear goal around)? 

What are problems that need to be solved? What things that need to be invented, or made more widely available, or made cheaper? 

This will help you think about the innovation that you’re trying to create – and ensure that you’re focusing on a problem where you can truly accelerate progress. What would it look like to solve these problems? How might you judge whether they had been solved? 

For instance, a barrier to decarbonising city public transport could be that, based on current rates of renewal, your bus fleet will not be replaced in time – and so a challenge could focus on developing technology to retrofit them for carbon-neutral operations.

Once you know what innovations you’re looking for, it can be useful to think about who might help solve the problem. 

That includes what kinds of approaches already exist and what sorts of companies already work in the field – but it’s also important to brainstorm what other fields could help solve the problem. Retrofitting buses for carbon neutral operations might be done by a vehicle manufacturer – but there could also be interesting approaches from industrial design, aerospace or engineering, for instance. Think broadly – would you only be open to electrifying your buses – or would retrofitting them for hydrogen or biofuel also be an acceptable approach?

Just as importantly, what support might they need to take part? Can you offer support with testing, matching partners, or a fast-track to procurement? And what sort of business model might they have? 

These questions help unpack how innovators are part of the solution to your problem: whether it’s useful to have new innovators, whether they can be attracted and whether they can build a sustainable business model.

Challenge prizes are ultimately about creating innovations and supporting innovators. But the best ones are also about changing systems. Can you define a problem which, if solved, would create broader, spillover benefits? 

Can it be done in a way which generates learning for your city, which raises awareness of an important topic or creates economic empowerment for underserved communities? 

We want the Climate Smart Cities Challenge to have benefits beyond just reduction in carbon emissions but that will also help foster more sustainable, equitable, livable communities. Think about interventions that can achieve multiple outcomes, and that can advance climate and urban development goals in other places, too.

Learn more about the Climate Smart Cities Challenge and how to enter. Entries close 22 January 2021.

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