Innovation Contests: A review of the growing literature

To stimulate innovation and help solve really big problems, (prize-induced) innovation contests are increasingly considered by a variety of organizations and governments. As  R&D budgets tighten and information and communication technologies continue to advance, leveraging the public’s expertise through innovation contests is becoming more attractive to industry and public agencies worldwide. Contests offer many advantages —including paying only for results, establishing an ambitious goal without having to predict which team or approach is most likely to succeed, bringing out-of-discipline perspectives to bear, stimulating private sector investment that is much greater than the prize value—but U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and others believe that the greatest advantage comes from widening the pool of potential problem solvers beyond the “usual suspects.”  This explains the growing popularity within the U.S. government to hold innovation contests. The contest portal,, features various contests and prize-induced projects from many agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services,  the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Energy.

A new article in the Journal Creativity and Innovation Management provides a detailed literature analysis and classification of innovation contests.  While not focused on the use of contests to innovate governance solutions, the paper does provide insight in the current state of play regarding research on the phenomenon. The authors (Sabrina Adamczyk, Angelika C. Bullinger, and Kathrin M. Möslein) start with a historical overview of the use of contests to generate innovation. The following table illustrates the longstanding use of innovation contests for a variety of purposes:

The paper subsequently categorizes the different perspectives used in the relevant literature (201 publications were identified) along the following lines: economic perspective, management perspective, education focus, innovation focus and sustainability focus. “The ‘economic perspective’ and ‘management perspective’ are meta-perspectives. The three subordinated foci describe possible purposes of innovation contests. Thus, the ‘education focus’ entails innovation contests that can be utilized as instruments to develop skills. The ‘innovation focus’ comprises innovation contests to stimulate and foster innovation. And the ‘sustainability focus’ contains innovation contests to promote sustainability”.



The categories provide a way to also categorize some findings of the literature on what works. For instance:

  • Research in the economic perspective suggested that innovation contests with higher awards, lower time cost, shorter problem description, longer duration and greater popularity will capture more participants to solve the underlying innovation task;
  • Research in the management perspective pointed towards various aspects closely linked to the management of innovation contests such as motivation of participants;
  • Current research with an education focus shows that innovation contests are effective tools for fostering the creativity of students and stimulating the development of their skills;
  • Regarding the innovation focus, publications mainly introduced innovation contests as powerful alternatives for generating new ideas compared to traditional new product (or service) development initiatives;
  • Publications with a sustainability focus demonstrated that innovation contests can be used as a new method to anchor sustainability issues not only within the firm, but also with the public.

The paper ends with an identification of the shortcomings of (and opportunities for further) research:

“One important shortcoming of the literature on innovation contests is the lack of theory. Up to now, there are no mainstream theories for exploring the research object of innovation contests…. A further shortcoming of the literature on innovation contests is the imbalance between qualitative and quantitative research.”

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