Contests as a Tool for Innovation

by Gary Knell
June 2, 2010

Reprinted from Gary’s Blog, May 2010. Gary Knell is Sesame Workshop’s President & CEO.

Earlier this month, the USDA and First Lady Michelle Obama opened entries for their Apps for Healthy Kids competition.  Via the competition, the USDA is offering a $40,000 prize pool for leveraging USDA nutritional data to create software which encourages children “to make more nutritious food choices and be more physically active.” We’re delighted to have Michael H. Levine, Executive Director of the Cooney Center, as a judge.

Over the last few months, contests which reward innovation have been a subtle and organic theme here at the Workshop. Beyond the USDA’s contest, we are involved in four others. Karen Driscoll, our Vice President of Marketing Services, is a judge for the Doodle 4 Google contest, that invites K-12 students design a Google Doodle. The Workshop has partnered with Aniboom, an online community of animators, to power a contest to develop an animation which will be featured in the next season of Sesame Street.  We’ve also partnered with Nokia — a contest where we ask the world, literally, to help us power educational content for mobile handsets. And the Cooney Center has a contest of its own: $10,000 to use The Electric Company to provide “an innovative digital media experience that promotes literacy skills” among 6 to 9 year-olds. (I’m a judge in that one.)

Contests are a great way to find innovators — people with great ideas and the skills necessary to execute on them — but are especially valuable for us.  As a nonprofit, resources are scarce and precious.  We can cast a large net through these contests, and I find them to be an interesting tool.  It’s not something we can do for everything — far from it — but it is a great way to encourage people to participate in our mission and improve our content at the same time.