Lessons Learnt From DARPA’s Red Balloons

In a previous post I talked about the role that prizes can play in coming up with unconventional and surprising solutions to difficult problems. In particular DARPA, partly to raise awareness, developed the red balloon challenge, which was solved by a team from MIT.

There’s an interesting article that discusses the ‘lessons learnt‘ from this challenge (to study the viral dispersion of information). Hopefully these insights can be be built into future similar challenges and projects:

  • Recognize that there’s power in numbers: Recognize that for certain projects, you need a lot of different minds (and eyes) working on things, and that certain tasks shouldn’t just be done by “the one best” individual.
  • Make it easy for more people to participate: Once you realize that you need a lot of people, you need to make it easy for them to participate.
  • Give people multiple reasons to participate: Different people have different motivations. Some people just want to belong to a successful project or a leading team to bask in the glow. Others need additional types of incentive. The MIT team offered up monetary compensation in addition to recognition for participation.
  • Give people a reason to get others involved: Sort of a corollary to recognizing the power in numbers, the MIT team worked hard to give people incentive not just to participate and to promote their participation, but also to recruit others to the team as well. This even made it so those who couldn’t help finding the balloons directly could still participate in better finding the people who could find the balloons.
  • Align incentives properly: Make sure that everyone is driving towards the same goal, and that the incentives work on top of one another to all push towards that same goal.
  • Look beyond your immediate “group”: One of the coolest things I thought about the MIT group was that there was nothing in there that limited it to MIT or the folks at MIT. They immediately recognized that it made the most sense to reach out to folks beyond their immediate circle, which is what helped them get the people they needed involved quickly.

How come we don’t do something similarly innovative here in the UK? It would do wonders for the publicity of science and innovation. We have all the equivalent organisations but none of the vision it seems!

Maybe we’re just much too conservative? But surely not, we’ve got a great track-record in coming up with bright ideas…

Picture credit here.


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