This month’s Carnival of Journalism is about “driving innovation” – in the wake of the end of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge five year run, among other things. Here’s my take:
Driving innovation needs to be quick
Any innovative idea needs to be able to deploy and iterate quickly – and any scheme to fund innovation needs to support that.
Having been through the Knight News Challenge three times, and reached the final shortlist twice, I was struck each time by how much changed in the online world between the initial submission and final award: If an internet year is worth 4.7 normal years, this process was taking over 3 ‘years’ in internet time. So much changed during that period that by the time I had reached the second or third stage, I wanted to re-write the whole thing.
In contrast, when I entered Channel 4’s 4iP fund (far from perfect, but certainly faster), the time from application to approval was swift. This allowed us to spend a few months working with the funders in addressing the issues the project raised (in Help Me Investigate’s case, largely legal ones) and still being able to start work before the Knight awards had even been shortlisted.
Why the difference? Perhaps because of the next point.
Innovation thrives on limitations
One of the reasons the internet has been so disruptive is that it has lowered the barriers to entry. Multinational media organisations have thrown millions at their own solutions, and yet most of them fail. One of the problems that funds such as Knight’s and Channel 4’s aim to solve is of access to funds – but those funds don’t have to be large.
The median value of a News Challenge award has ranged from $200,000 to $326,000 during its four years of existence, and I suspect one of the problems with Channel 4’s 4iP fund was that its £50m pot was based on television-scale budgets.
You don’t need a large amount of money to innovate online, and the best research and development comes after launch, because you can see how users are using it, and what they tell you they want it to do, or indeed what they build themselves for you.
So instead of funding to the hilt a dozen or so ideas that have to jump through several on-paper hoops to prove their theoretical viability, I would suggest this: spread small amounts of innovation funding wider across 100 pilot projects, and see how they jump through real-life hoops instead.
Projects that jump through those hoops could perhaps then apply to a second fund specifically aimed at the separate problem of scalability. I can speak from experience that running a pilot project gives you a much stronger sense of what you’ll need to do to scale up, than doing the same exercise on paper.
This second fund could even provide rapid access to servers or customer support staff or legal advice while the application is being considered (otherwise the customer experience becomes so bad that by the time funds are released, the project has no users left).
Separating funding innovation from funding scaling allows you to first fund projects that take bigger risks, and generate a bigger pool of innovators with experience of launching and managing an innovative product. And that leads on to the third point:
Support innovation, not projects
Every fund that I’ve been involved in neglected what could have been potentially their biggest value: the process itself of vetting applications and monitoring progress.
(It’s also the biggest source of resentment: there will always be accusations that funds are given to the ‘in-crowd’)
“Driving innovation” should go beyond “funding innovative projects”. Simply opening up the application process so that everyone can see how ideas develop – and what the ‘experts’ think about the detail of proposals – can help contribute to a culture of innovation. Seeing other great ideas being developed makes people feel a whole lot more innovative – and produce better ideas – than getting an opaque email saying “Proposal not accepted” and seeing a disappointing-on-the-surface winners’ list 5 months later.
For the funders this represents a lot of admin, but tough: that’s their job. And there are creative possibilities here: when you move the focus from funding innovative projects to supporting innovation you can start to broaden the focus towards building a network of innovators and aspiring innovators, towards creating a supportive ecology. That also spreads the costs, lowers risk, and increases benefits.
Ultimately, just as networked models are allowing us to revisit ways of doing things without physical limitations, the funding process should reflect that change too. It should be quicker, smaller scale, and more transparent.