Observations from a Judge: Three Takeaways for Federal Prizes from MIT’s Global Challenge

Over the past few weeks I had the pleasure of serving as a global judge for the MIT Global Challenge which ended in an exciting awards ceremony Monday in Cambridge, Mass. The Challenge is designed to connect students” with the passion and talent to improve the world with the experience and resources of the MIT community worldwide.” MIT views innovation and entrepreneurship as public service through this annual competition that awards up to $25,000 per team for the best ideas to tackle barriers to well being. A snapshot, borrowed from the challenge website, illustrates the structure of the challenge:

Through the course of judging this challenge three invaluable ideas stuck out that I think can help all of us  as we continue to explore the use of prizes in the federal government:

(1)    Team judging is a great option for the participating teams: The global challenge set up the judging process so all judges were assigned to judging teams (I was in team “Thundercats”).  Teams consist of 4-6 judges who all independently review 5 submissions and then work together to schedule interviews with the teams to clarify any outstanding questions. Furthermore, the interaction with the teams doesn’t end with those interview calls. I found that many judges wanted to stay in touch with the teams after the challenge was over and continue to mentor them to help contribute to the success of their ideas. Also, the teams I spoke with at the awards ceremony are genuinely excited to continue a relationship with their judges to help make their idea a reality—even if they weren’t a winner. My major lesson here was that in as much as prize competitions can help develop relationships between the participating teams and judges, an ongoing mentoring network can be set up organically.

(2)    Team judging is also great for the judges themselves: Working together to interview the teams was by far the most valuable part of the experience for me. Through the planning, interviewing and follow-up conversations we had, I got to know a truly phenomenal group of MIT alum that are passionate about development. Membership on my group was diverse including a doctor, a USAID innovation leader, a 3M senior engineer, and a DC-based strategy consultant. I’m excited about continuing my relationship with those folks in years to come. I learned a lot about where the cutting edge, innovative concepts at the university level for development currently are, was able to give back to my alma mater, but also developed relationships that are incredibly valuable to me as well. All the right incentives were in place for judges in my mind.

(3)    Leveraging a strong, existing network drove high participation: The MIT IDEAS Challenge relies on one major network—the MIT student and alumni network. Eligible participants are within that network, judges are within that network, and many sponsors come from that network. By focusing on a community that was vested in continuing the growth, development and health of that community, an existing incentive structure was already baked in. The result? In 20 days, 117 countries and 14,000 voters participated in the public judging process for the awards. Also, over 50 judges from across the world participated in the juried awards. A community didn’t need to be DEVELOPED for this challenge—they leveraged one that already existed. This community was primed for challenges and has responded accordingly.

Overall, I had a wonderful experience participating in the judging process. I would do it again in a heartbeat and look forward to the impact the winning teams will make in the developing world in the next year.

In addition to liveblogging the awards ceremony (see the coverage on the live site here), a couple of the teams I evaluated ended up winning several prizes; congrats to Innobox and AQUA for their great ideas!