NRCan In-spire: Hackathon/Appathon

Are you interested in program and policy innovation and/or experimentation? Visit the New Policy Instruments and Approaches Portal.


Prize challenges are a form of crowdsourcing that use competitions with prizes (e.g. monetary, recognition, access, etc.) to incent broad or targeted participation in helping to solve particular problems. Prize challenges can be used in a broad range of disciplines (e.g. technical, scientific, policy) and can vary in terms of their scope. Prize challenges are a tried and true method tied to a history of breakthrough developments spanning several centuries including accurate marine navigation (1765) and the first non-stop transatlantic flight (1927). Today, prize challenges are commonly found on web-based platforms; these platforms may be custom-built (e.g. or publicly available (e.g. Nasa partnership with Freelancer). Prize challenges can target individuals or groups of people to collaborate.


  • Avoid group think
  • Gather innovative ideas and solutions
  • Identify additional stakeholders and map external talent
  • Generate citizen awareness, engagement and excitement
  • Lever outside perspectives, competencies and capabilities
  • Accelerate progress towards ambitious goals by levering the crowd
  • Facilitate cross-sector knowledge mobilization and collaboration, and build the field
  • Stimulate private sector investment through solution development and/or spin-off investments at a lower cost and with less risk than traditional granting programs (only winners receive prizes)


  • Incentives must be commensurate with the challenge
  • Scope must be clearly delineated and communicated to participants
  • Requires sufficiently succinct objectives, engagement strategy, expertise and attention to motivate people to participate

Policy Opportunity

  • Identify regulatory barriers to innovation and inform reforms
  • Develop and prototype solutions to a policy or program challenges
  • Stimulate rapid development in areas where the either the market or existing social policy/programs have failed
  • Employ incentive-based, online platforms to solicit input from your organization or (more typically) from an external audience
  • Attract participation from a range of lay and expert individuals; could be combined with follow-up engagement to inform the policy process
  • Inclusive approach to governance that validates citizen input and can increase trust between government, citizens and stakeholders; stakeholders could engaged prior to the challenge to help determine what effort is already being put against the challenge or to help scope the challenge question(s).


  • Clarity of evaluation criteria
  • Availability of a “solver community” and means of engaging them via new or existing platforms
  • Nature of the problem you need help solving (i.e. is it best solved with a challenge?)
  • Attractiveness of the incentive structure to potential participants (e.g. type and size of prize) in relation to ‘the ask’
  • Ability to effectively stage gate the competition to reward or remove participants from the process based on their performance
  • Availability of internal resources to support the challenge (e.g. administrative support, communications, innovation management, etc.)
  • Ability to partner with or hire outside the organization to ensure success at any/all stages of the process.

Government of Canada

  • Play Exchange (Public Health Agency of Canada) consisted of a national call for ideas and solutions to improve health outcomes through a prize challenge.
  • Grand Challenges Canada is a not-for-profit organization, funded by the government of Canada, which focuses on scaling up bold ideas with big impact in global health. As of 2016, it has supported over 700 projects in more than 80 low and middle income countries.
  • G-20 SME Finance Challenge was a competition launched by the G20 leaders in 2009 to find the best models worldwide for public-private partnerships that catalyze finance for small and medium enterprises. Canada committed up to $20 million to fund winning proposals. Peace Dividend Trust -now known as Building Markets-, headquartered in Ottawa, was one of the winners.

Best in Class

  • XPRIZE focuses on ‘unsolvable’ problems where markets have failed.
  • Innocentive connects problem solvers, methodologies and online platforms to help clients pursue their innovation goals.
  • is a listing of challenge and prize competitions run by more than 80 agencies across federal government; including technical, scientific, ideation, and creative competitions.
  • NASA Centre of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation collaborates with innovators across NASA and the Federal Government to generate ideas and solve important problems by working with global communities via the Nasa Tournament Lab.
  • Mayors Challenge encourages cities to generate bold new ideas that solve urban challenges and improve city life — and have the potential to spread (US, EU).