New Trends: We Want YOU to Solve the World's Problems

What do General Electric, the Obama administration, and Ashoka have in common? No, the answer to this question isn’t a punch line—but it should make you smile. The private company, the federal government, and the social sector organization all oversee competitions to collect and fund the world’s best solutions to the world’s worst problems.

With a large kick-off event in May, GE launched its Ecomagination Challenge, an innovation extravaganza offering $200 million dollars in awards and seed money to the most promising ideas for our energy future. Just a week ago, the Obama administration created, an online portal hosting competitions for solutions to problems such as childhood obesity and poor public school performance. Both efforts bare no small resemblance to Ashoka’s Changemakers, which has been launching such challenges as well as funding the good ideas they generate since 2004.

The equation—crowd-sourcing plus prizes equals innovative solutions—is a simple one. But there’s a brilliant twist: all three platforms make the ideas they’re gathering public and include ways for the world-at-large to vote on the ideas they like best. (The weight given to the public’s opinion varies. In some challenges, public choice winners take the grand prize; in others, they’re reward is nothing more substantial than pride).

By merging open-sourcing with crowdsourcing, GE, the government, and Ashoka are tapping into the third in the holy trinity of cyber social tools: viral marketing. Idea-makers, courting the support of idea-supporters, have incentive to spread the word; the very participants of a competition become its street team, and a challenge to generate ideas transforms into a campaign to raise awareness about pressing social issues. That itself is an idea worth rewarding.