Cities Can Win With Public Contests

David Bornstein of the New York Times writes in a recent New York Times article about the ways that the Obama administration has used contests to stimulate ideas and participation. “Last year the president signed legislation granting all agencies broad authority to conduct prize competitions in an effort to engage large numbers of people outside government in problem solving aligned with governing objectives, and to identify and spread solutions already on the ground.” Cities can seize upon the same wisdom and craft contests that will inspire the public to bring its genius, skill, enthusiasm and idiosyncrasies to the forefront for the general good.  Some cities have already demonstrated the benefits of such contests.  In Pittsburgh, a long-term contest is now in progress to attract a business-owning baby boomer to relocate to Pittsburgh from somewhere else.  Why all the trouble  for one new business or resident?  The enormous amount of positive publicity stimulated by the contest makes the $100,000 winning award seem tiny by comparison. Imagine the number of productive, potential tax-payers who are learning of the contest and reconsidering Pittsburgh.  It’s a great boon to economic development and image.

In Chattanooga, all geeks are on notice — the city is offering big prizes for great applications and corresponding business plans. Dubbed “Gig City” as part of the competition branding,  the contest and its fruits have been big PR wins for the city.  But more importantly, the actual work product of the competitors and businesses they generate will be in and for Chattanooga — and that kind of innovation and potential job growth is priceless. ““Chattanooga offers forward-thinking entrepreneurs a huge head-start in leading the next generation of Internet commerce,” Tom Edd Wilson, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said. “The Gig Prize will provide the support and connections necessary to develop, prove and fund these paradigm shifting business models.”

Once the competitive engines are purring, it’s easy to see how this paradigm of ferocious creativity and collaboration can create something new and viral.  The perfect setting may be the Code for America project, seeking to bring innovators to cities and counties, and to the nation itself to seize upon the opportunity to innovate in favor of improved operation and service delivery. So how does this effect your city? Go beyond school-age contests and essay competitions.  One place to look is to the kinds of industry clusters you seek to cultivate.  Looking for biotech? Why not launch a business/biotech contest.  Give folks a year to apply and be vetted, require every inch of corroboration necessary to ensure a potential winner, and fund it with enough to make it attractive.  The prize may be in dollars, but the real reward may be tax-free offices, guaranteed executive housing for a year, a partneship with a local hospital or medical school,  places in a magnet school for relocated kids.  Building an craft-ale cluster?  The same principles apply.

How can your city leverage an investment in prize money?  We want to hear your ideas.  S4C challenges you to use your best minds and strongest economic development techniques to develop winning contests.  To get all the details, including the rules and eligibility guidelines click here.  We will publish the best ones.  Deadline is July 1, 2012.  The winner will be featured in our Cities at Work Newsletter and the contest information distributed nationwide through PR Newswire.