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A New Knight News Challenge

The Knight Foundation just launched the 2012 Knight New Challenge. As they have for the past few years, they’re awarding funding this year for breakthrough innovations that help inform and connect communities. But for those who have been following the well-known media prize, you’ll notice it looks rather different.

A Open Process

An element of the new model that caught my attention was the application form. (I’ve spent the past two years working on recruiting fellows for CfA…) Two things were particularly interesting.

First, it’s short. (Shorter in fact than ours, which we’ve fiendishly tried to whittle down). Knight’s application allows only 450 words. Total. Talk about making every word count. As we’ve found, however, shorter applications make it not only easier to apply, but also easier to engage the selection committee — because our application is short, our committee members tend to review dozens of candidates.

Second, it’s in the open. Instead of the applications going into some firewalled system, they are posted directly to the public tumblr, where reblogging and commenting are encouraged. This is an interesting attempt to promote the notion of open innovation. “Closed” submissions via email are allowed as well, however, so it will be interesting to see where the chips fall, and how many competitors are willing to compete in the open.

Shorter, Leaner Process

Structurally, they’ve made changes as well. Instead of a long, annual competition for funding, they’ve switched to a short, iterative process where they’ll have multiple competitions throughout the year, each with its own focus. The first is Networks — that is, taking advantage of existing software and platforms to engage. This strikes me as a smart way to promote more targeted innovation, following the lean startup methodology which we’ve attempted to institutionalize in our fellowship. More ideas and more cycles of feedback should hopefully lead to faster innovation.

Applications are being accepted now, and the deadline is March 17, though naturally, “it’s better to get ideas in early and respond to feedback.”

As we develop our strategy around the CfA Accelerator — our own attempt to boosting innovation, but in the civic space — we’re trying to learn how best to support and encourage entrepreneurism. So we’re excited to see how these new changes play out.

(Editor’s Note: Code for America is a Knight Foundation grantee through their Technology for Engagement Initiative.)