How Chile reacted to the pandemic using challenge prizes

08 Mar 2021

Author: Benjamin Maturana, Head of Policy at the Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation, Chile.

Challenge prizes will be one step forward in order to further promote innovation in Chile and move towards a more resilient and knowledge-based economy.

For decades, people in Chile have dreamed of becoming a developed country. With the help of rising copper prices and a stable democracy, the country more than doubled its GDP per capita from 1990 to 2010. However, in the last few years productivity growth has stalled and social conflict has been on the rise. Tensions reached an all-time high in October 2019, sparking a crisis that finally led to an historic agreement to write a new constitution.

But besides the challenge of reaching a consensus on a new constitution, our country needs to boost growth in order to provide the opportunities and wellbeing that our society is demanding. With stagnant productivity, an export basket highly dependent on copper, and almost no new products being exported for decades, innovation is starting to be acknowledged as an urgent need.

Enough of half empty glasses 

On the bright side, Chile has great underlying capabilities. Some of our Universities are among Latin America’s best schools, our scientists are generating high quality research that is being recognised internationally and some of our startups are beginning to attract the attention of international investors

One of the problems we are facing is the scarce cooperation between the private and academic sector, and the disconnect between our innovators and the challenges our country faces.

To respond to these problems, in the newly created Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation we’ve decided to try challenge prize competitions as a method to stimulate innovation in Chile to improve the quality of life of its inhabitants. With the help of experts from Nesta Challenges, we created a process to identify some of the most urgent problems that different public sector organisations had, and that could benefit from new innovative solutions. Using a green light criteria, we went from nearly 90 proposals from all around the country and narrowed them down to five. These include a challenge to monitor the health of our wetlands, a challenge to strengthen the oversight of our financial system, and another to characterise and model the movement of trucks in our cities.

And then Covid-19 happened

As for most public sector institutions around the world, the pandemic forced us to drastically change our plans and reflect whether what we were doing made sense in the new scenario. We quickly realised challenge prize competitions could also be an effective way  to respond to the new challenges the pandemic was bringing. As Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilators were becoming more and more scarce, and we did not have any national producers, we decided to try two challenge prize competitions in order to reward innovators that could quickly start producing PPE and ventilators meeting the technical requirements these products have.

The response from our national innovation system was astounding. We quickly realised there were more than 35 different teams developing ventilators all around the country, and dozens of universities, 3D printing labs, and startups producing PPE. With the financial incentives from the government, these different teams could scale up their solutions and become a concrete contribution to the national response against the virus. Perhaps more importantly, those capabilities are now active and ready to be deployed if there is any future need to do so.

With this experience, we could learn something useful out of this crisis. We have great scientists, engineers, and all kinds of innovators in our country; and challenge prizes can help channel all these capacities to solve some of our most urgent needs.

After three months, more than 150 health centers benefited from more than a hundred thousand units of PPE

Looking towards the decline of the Covid-19 crisis, our ministry will keep pushing forward this tool. We have recently launched our first non-Covid related challenges and we have created a new website in order to communicate them and summon innovators to solve them. We´re sure this will be one step forward in order to further promote innovation in the country and move towards a more resilient and knowledge-based economy.

Benjamin Maturana is currently the Head of Policy at the Ministry of Science, Technology, Knowledge and Innovation in Chile. He was previously the Head of Innovation at the Ministry of Economy. He’s an economist from Universidad Católica in Chile and Master in Policy and International Development from Harvard University. You can add him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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