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Sustaining Invention with an Apps Challenge

By Arthur Grau on 12 July 2012 – 3:19pm

Republished with permission from Applications for Good.


Ever since being asked to invent and develop ideas for apps of the future, my Mondays have a new outlook. ZeroDivide hosted an Idea Jam in June to generate inventions for the catalog of ideas at the Mozilla Ignite challenge–apps that would require or be enhanced by 1Gbps internet connectivity. Within two hours, our small groups had come up with half a dozen viable ideas, a few of which were genius and became available for comment on the Ignite website. However, I found myself asking, “Now what? Where do we go from here?” Perhaps I was feeling extra critical because it was a Monday.


Having guided innovation processes with informal groups at Applications for Good and participated in many a hackathon, I feel familiar with difficulties of maintaining the relationships and focus needed to start some good and then to follow through with it. The Jam was a familiar format, we met in a large group and then in small breakouts to invent. We were asked to think big and to get our ideas up on the website by the next day. Both prompts are a great start, but still not enough to sustain an idea from invention through to innovation.(More here on the difference between invention and innovation.)



In starting something good, ad hoc teams face a number of challenges. Team members have demanding workloads or different extrinsic motivations depending on professional interests. One way the hosts accommodated, was to keep the process brief and largely open-ended. This served the first challenge by allowing us to actually take some structured play time away from daily tasks and to dream a little. The motivation challenge was tougher to address. By bringing like minded neighbors together from technology, media and government, ZeroDivide guaranteed we would all have overlapping professional interest, easing us into quick, effective groups. If given the chance, I may have requested a roster up front and to be placed with others whose motivations may have been more similar to my own. As it happened, we were grouped by our location in the room. This led to unexpected new relationships and positive outcomes for the ideas generated. Viable seeds were sown.


The seed then requires people and relationships to germinate and grow once their invention has happened. The spirit of keeping people central to the process appears to be honored with in Mozilla Ignite and partners, though the path from invention to innovation is a long one and takes long term support. A manifesto for the tech community recently created by Knight Foundation grantees included this learning, “We’ve focused a lot on engagement within digital interaction, but need to better connect the online with offline social interaction.” This project is doing exactly that through “Gigabit Hack Days” and by promoting DIY Idea Jams that anyone can produce. My hope is that there are enough people on the Ignite team to keep the community engagement authentic, personal, local and up-to-the-minute. I have found this to be a challenge to maintaining an effective on/offline community. It still takes people, time and face to face contact, all of which take resources.


An avenue to fertilize the Ignite challenge ecosystem and share the burden of innovation would be to associate each viable challenge idea with organizations who are established subject area experts. Of course this will happen naturally when idea submitters hail from orgs working in related fields, and I believe projects are slated to have subject-area mentors, however special attention should be lent to ensuring the app idea is attached not only to a person, but to an organization that is committed to growing it past the seedling phase into something useful for the market. With Applications for Good we learned that without a champion, many a great product would get lost in time or other business. The most successful app prototypes were those that had the ongoing organizational support of a brick and mortar…and people. Beyond the obvious structural support for an app, organizations have access to their constituents who are essential to test your inventions in a real market. Again, thought leaders from Knight Foundation’s Technology for Engagement hold this recommendation as the first of four for the future of hackathons, “Start with an organization”. Agreed.


Beyond this, safeguards that the organization will remain committed to an invention should be put in place. This may include illustrating it to the board or formally unveiling the commitment publicly via website and publications. In addition, within often-changing organizational directives, that innovation work should be attached to a specific program or service, to which it is best matched, thereby digging a furrow for ongoing growth. It’s not enough start with the organization, one must associate the production with specific people or projects to see it fulfilled.


So from today, I am delighted to have attended the Idea Jam. I see Mozilla Ignite as a fertile field for those ideas that are just too big to be housed within my daily work of helping low bandwidth communities get access to cutting edge online tools. How we move invention to innovation may not be a clear pathway. We will each need to leverage our individual abilities and relationships to ensure the ongoing support of these app ideas. By activating the motivations of the invention teams and then seeing that their products get into the hands of organizations that have access to new markets, I believe some of these inventions may be sustained and turned into useful tools.