Finland celebrates its 100th birthday next year with the ultimate innovation competition, a “hackathon” which lasts seven months and has a 1-million-euro prize pool. Any team of 3-5 people offering a solution in the field of ‘the better use of everyone’s skills’ can sign up by 13 February for the Ratkaisu 100 challenge prize competition.

Challenge prizes are based on an open innovation process and can be used to solve wicked and complex problems, where a broad understanding based on a range of sectors is needed. At best, a challenge prize runs in parallel with other social development activities, accelerating change and building bridges between various players, including innovators and sponsors.

In recent years, challenge prizes have also been run successfully in Finland, for example by the University of Helsinki and Gasum. This year and next, Finland will be making several high-profile entries into the world of challenge prizes in addition to Sitra’s Ratkaisu 100 Challenge prize. Intended for researchers, the purpose of the Helsinki Challenge is to put UN sustainability goals into practice. The Vuosisadan Rakentajat (Builders of the Century) challenge prize is a competition organised by 40 Finnish foundations and trusts for ideas that improve young people’s well-being. In addition to challenge prizes, we have also seen a boom in hackathons, which also rely on a theory of open innovation.

We talked with the President and Organiser of the competition at the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, which created and runs this Challenge prize competition.

How was the idea born for such a competition?

Sitra’s President, Mikko Kosonen:

Our society’s challenges are complex and affect people’s everyday lives. Many of these problems cannot be solved without open co-development and participation in problem-solving from all sectors of society.

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One of our tasks at Sitra is to create moments when people can look into the future together, to demolish boldly the existing structures, to play with the wildest ideas and to really try something new in practice. In line with this, Sitra’s societal training activities between 2011 and 2015 included five Synergise Finland forums, which brought together opinion makers from all walks of life, ranging from grassroots actors to political decision-makers, to look for solutions to problems Finland is due to face in the future.

An idea for a Challenge prize competition grew out of the learnings from these forums. We wanted to involve even more people, in a more practical way, to tackle the issues at hand. And most importantly, we wanted to come up with a way of creating tangible solutions to social issues – even faster.

Now, more than ever, we need to pull together and engage in open-minded problem-solving.

Why did you pick this kind of 7-month hackathon, a challenge prize structure? Have there been competitions like this in Finland before?

Mikko Kosonen:

A challenge prize is an excellent way of finding new problem-solvers and solutions to a specific challenge, while boosting cooperation and creating a solution and future-oriented way of doing things.

Sitra’s Challenge prize specialist, Kalle Nieminen:

The key objective of a challenge prize is to define a problem and then bring together problem-solvers from various sectors of society to tackle it. Problem-solvers learn from each other and are assisted in improving their solutions. In addition, sponsors can be brought in at any stage of the competition to help bring ideas to life.

Challenge prizes are based on an open innovation process and are best for complex problems, where a broad understanding across sectors is needed. Several such big competitions are scheduled for 2017, but so far challenge prizes in larger scale are quite new in Finland.

Why are you doing this in Sitra?

Mikko Kosonen:

Sitra is tasked with anticipating the future and finding new operating models for society. A challenge prize is a tried-and-tested way of tackling multi-faceted challenges and taking a new approach to solving complex problems.

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We are interested in how a challenge prize could be used to generate social innovations – to improve the everyday lives and well-being of the Finnish people. Ratkaisu 100 was launched to tackle social problems whose solutions require cross-sectoral cooperation.

What do you expect from the winning team?

Kalle Nieminen:

During the competition, in 2017, the teams will be assisted in developing a practical solution to the problem. The solutions will also be subjected to a real-life test, being trialled and further developed during a piloting stage.

Multidisciplinary teams of 3 to 5 can apply. The team must already have an idea for the solution when they submit their application. We also expect a commitment to the competition and the motivation to develop the solution.

The winning solution should be effective, innovative and should be feasible in the long term.

The solution must create a model that enables better recognition and/or use of qualifications, skills and competences of people, or groups of people. The solution must be significant, and it must have a broad-based societal impact. The winning solution should also be innovative and new. It approaches the societal problem from a new point of view and provides something that has not been provided by previous solutions. The solution must also work in the long term. It must be based on a profitable business model or another funding model to guarantee its sustainability.

Can a team apply with a product which is on the market?

Kalle Nieminen:

The problem definition process is easily the most important part of the prize design. There are a lot of questions to ask when you are designing a good problem statement. Are potential participants willing to dedicate time and resources to solve the problem? Is the problem statement interesting enough to attract potential solvers? Are there enough solvers in the field? And maybe the most important one: is there already a solution on the market, which can solve the whole problem? If yes, the challenge prize competition is not needed at all.

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The answer to your question is that the product or service can be on the market already, but based on our research there are no effective-enough solutions yet. With this challenge prize we would help those solutions to scale up. Or maybe there is a product or service that is solving a totally different problem, but with a small modification, it could fit within this competition too.

When the teams apply, they must describe the development stage of their solution.

Can I really win a million? Or will this be spread on different costs and the winner could get just 100,000?

Mikko Kosonen:

Sitra will finance the development of the solution with one million euros. The awarded sum can be granted to one or several teams, based on the proposal made by the jury.

As the competition is linked to Finland’s 100-year celebrations – how Finnish do the teams have to be?

Mikko Kosonen:

The Ratkaisu 100 challenge prize is organised to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Finland and the 50th anniversary of the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. We hope that the Finnish people will genuinely take the Ratkaisu 100 challenge prize to heart and that we can find new solutions that benefit not only our 100-year-old country but outside of it as well.

Since the main language of the competition is Finnish, you should have at least one Finnish speaker in your team. Also, the application should be in one of our official languages: Finnish or Swedish.

Skills as the theme – what hopes do you have for the result?

Kalle Nieminen:

The challenge is to develop a solution that allows for the more effective recognition and use of qualifications, skills and abilities in a world where people and information increasingly move from one country to another.

We expect the solution to be new, effective and a feasible way of either recognising, or using, people’s skills in a more effective way. Solutions could focus on lifelong learning, recognising skills acquired through non-formal education or new integration paths that serve asylum seekers – to give few examples.

Mikko Kosonen:

The challenge is complex, dynamic and networked. This means that it could not be solved with one specific solution, but it requires radically different responses. I call this an ecosystem of solutions. An ecosystem that contains different solutions, solvers, mentors and sponsors. Even though the million-euro prize will only go to the winners, the whole process is designed to support all the solutions and to form an ecosystem that tries to solve this societal problem.

What can a startup get from this?

Kalle Nieminen:

The competition phase consists of on-site workshops, an excursion and other events, adding up to all-in-all 15 days. The teams will gain useful contacts and get the opportunity to meet new investors.

In the workshops and on the excursion abroad, the teams will hear introductions to topics by experts, receive sparring opportunities and develop their solutions further. All of the workshops and the excursion are intensive development sprints with the aim of providing new perspectives, sparring with top experts about their ideas and supporting the development carried out by the teams.

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Sitra will support each team selected for the competition with a maximum of 8,000 euros. The support will be granted for expenses incurred in the development of the solutions (trials, piloting, organisation, user studies, etc.). Additionally, the teams will be reimbursed reasonable travel and accommodation expenses incurred in the workshops and events.

Teams will be supported by mentors and people who will spar with them. The mentors will challenge, guide and support the competitors in developing the solutions during the competition. Sitra will build a network of mentors, who will be available to the competitors.

All intellectual property rights remain with the teams participating in the competition.

What kind of a team would be a winning team?

Kalle Nieminen:

To be honest, I don’t know yet. That’s the reason for this competition. What I know is that it is all about the team. The best solutions are developed in teams in which different types of competence are brought together. There should be someone who really understands the substance of this societal problem. And depending on their solutions, the team probably needs experts in coding, business modelling, service design or ethnography.

Teams have to describe in the application what competencies they have and why those competencies are relevant to the solution. Based on the applications, we will select 20 teams for interviews. In the interview, the motivation of the teams and the cooperation between the team members is evaluated.

As we mentioned earlier, it is all about the team. And that’s why we are looking for highly motivated super-teams with an innovative idea.

Deadline to apply is Feb 13.

Photo’s: Rob Orthen and Tuuli Nummelin

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