What's the big idea?

It seems the public and private industry are more frequently being asked to come up with ideas for what might best be called "the Next Big Things." The main driver of this trend is the U.S. government but there are a number of private enterprises looking to pay you good money for your ideas.

The idea is perhaps summed up best by NASA which said its Centennial Challenges program is designed to get to what it calls "unconventional solutions from non-traditional sources."

The latest government call for science and technology innovation comes from the researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the White House Office of Science and Technology and NASA.

Indeed calls for such unconventional solutions is growing. DARPA and the White House group this month put out a public call this week for ideas that could form what they call the Grand Challenges - ambitious yet achievable goals that would herald serious breakthroughs in science and technology.

In defining what the government groups are looking for, Thomas Kalil, deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that while there might not be universally accepted definition of what constitutes a Grand Challenge, they typically have certain attributes including:

• They can have a major impact in domains such as health, energy, sustainability, education, economic opportunity, national security, or human exploration.

• They are ambitious but achievable. Proposing to end scarcity in five years is certainly ambitious, but it is not achievable. As Arthur Sulzberger put it, "I believe in an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out," Kalil said.

• Grand Challenges are compelling and intrinsically motivating. They should capture the public's imagination. Many people should be willing to devote a good chunk of their career to the pursuit of one of these goals.

• Grand Challenges have a "Goldilocks" level of specificity and focus. "Improving the human condition" is not a Grand Challenge because it does not provide enough guidance for what to do next. Grand Challenges should have measurable targets for success and timing of completion. On the other hand, a Grand Challenge that is too narrowly defined may assume a particular technical solution and reduce the opportunity for new approaches.

• Grand Challenges can help drive and harness innovation and advances in science and technology. I certainly do not want to argue that technology is going to solve all of our problems. But it can be a powerful tool, particularly when combined with social, financial, policy, institutional and business model innovations, Kalil said.

Then last week NASA said it wants to gauge industry interest in the agency holding one of its Centennial Challenges to build the next advanced unmanned aircraft. NASA said it is planning this Challenge in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Research Lab, with NASA providing the prize purse of up to $1.5 million. The type of challenge NASA said it is envisioning would be no easy task as it is looking to address one of the more complicated drone issues - sensing and avoiding other aircraft.

NASA and DARPA have set the bar high on these public challenges, having developed some pretty advanced technology with them like cutting-edge unmanned autos and green aircraft. Private firms like the X Prize Foundation have had successful challenges in the past, helping develop the first public spacecraft, for example.

The question is do you have an idea for the Next Big Thing? People with checkbooks open want to know.

If you have thoughts on this topic let me know: mcooney@nww.com


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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