We [citizens] are now officially challenged to make things better

Big-money prize challenges are not exactly a new concept: Think “challenge” grants, The X Prize, the Millennium Prize, or your local public-radio station. [The daddy of them all may have been the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 reward—a major chunk of change in its time—for the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York to Paris or vice versa. Charles Lindbergh captured that prize with his historic 1927 flight,  and the boom in air travel has continued ever since.]

There have been others, of course, but until recently, challenges [as opposed to competitive, or non-competitive, bidding] have not been used to spur creative solutions to big problems addressed by government. Now, there’s challenge.gov, a new site for public and private collaboration on problem solving.

At the new website, government agencies post challenges that are open to citizens. All of the challenges offer prizes—monetary or non-monetary—for accomplishing a particular goal. Some of the challenges are narrowly focused, like the “Game Day Challenge,” a competition for colleges and universities to find ways to reduce waste at their football games.

Some challenges offer significant monetary prizes, with open-ended deadlines that reflect the enormity of the task.  Examples include:

Green Flight Challenge, created by NASA: “…build an aircraft that can fly 200 miles in less than two hours using the energy equivalent of less than 1 gallon of gas per occupant.”  Total prize money: $1,650,000

Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize, [also known as the L prize], created by U.S. Department of Energy: “to develop high-quality, high-efficiency solid-state lighting products to replace the common light bulb.” Total prize money: $15 million

Others, on a smaller scale, offer citizens a chance to show off their photographic and design skills, tell personal stories that could help others, or share classroom tips. Among them is a challenge, with $12,000 in available prize money, to submit health recipes for school lunches—an extension of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” anti-obesity campaign. Other smaller scale challenges include:

Poster Contest on Carbon Monoxide Safety, created by the US. Consumer Product Safety Commission: ..”to create a poster that helps raise awareness about the dangers of CO in the home.” $2,750 in prizes

Challenge to Innovate, created by U.S. Department of Education: “…identify and solve education’s most pressing classroom problems.” Individual prizes of $1,000

Sparked by the Obama administration’s Strategy for American Innovation, the challenge clearinghouse introduces “Darwinian pressure in government IT,” said Vivek Kundra, the administration’s chief information officer. “[Challenge.gov] is a fundamental shift in power. This engages the American people as co-creators in solving some of the toughest problems this country has to face.”

The site debuted on Sept. 7, 2010 with 36 challenges from 16 agencies, but undoubtedly, more will appear. All federal agencies are eligible to post challenges, and the site offers an RSS feed and an email update to keep citizens aware of new postings. Maybe someone will post a challenge asking us to figure out ways to get more agencies to think more creatively and…offer more challenges. In the meantime, where did I put those poster paints?