“Collaborative competition” suggests a paradoxical mix of antagonistic and cooperative elements. Recently, my colleague Nando Hamker and I set out to examine whether collaborative competition is…collaborative.

We decided to analyze in depth one of the collaborative competitions pioneered by Ashoka’s Changemaker Initiative. As of 2010, the Changemakers Initiative had run more than 45 collaborative competitions on social and environmental issues, including maternal health, women and sport, drinking water and sanitation, and new media and tourism. Competition contributors include social entrepreneurs already selected by Ashoka, but the competition is open to everyone.

The competition follows a four-month schedule. The process is to identify the topic and its key questions; launch the competition online; invite online entries, comments, revisions, etc.; select up to 15 finalists by a jury (selected by the Changemakers Initiative); and then have the Changemakers community vote on the top proposals. The competitions are sponsored by companies and foundations, some of which offer further support after the competition ends.

We began our analysis. Drawing on recent work in sustainability science, we analysed the collaborative competitions as a public, open, dynamic, and reciprocal peer-review process: all entries and comments are publicly posted; anyone with Internet access can contribute their own idea or contribute to others’ ideas; contributors can respond to comments (this is potentially developmental, in that contributors can improve their entries in response to comments); and contributors are simultaneously reviewers. Due to our own research background in the water sector, we decided to examine the collaborative competition on the water and sanitation crisis.

What would we learn about collaborative spirit? There were 263 ideas presented by proponents from 52 different countries. In total, 694 comments were made. Out of the 263 entries, 143 were commented on. However, the distribution of comments was very skewed: Twelve entries received almost a third of all comments. No finalist responded to criticisms or suggestions. Thus, there did not seem to be evidence that the competition had improved the winning entries; or put differently, the jury and then the online community in the final vote did not consider participation in refining and enriching a necessary condition for winning the competition. This result was confirmed by an examination of four other collaborative competitions with different themes.

So are the collaborative competitions just competitive? No, we we also found evidence for reciprocity. About 60 percent, or 150 of 254 people, who posted an entry also commented on other entries. Less than a third of those who posted an entry (72) also replied to comments on their entries. Thus, some collaboration was in evidence—but not amongst the winners. However, one important thing to note is that these findings are limited—the method of analysis did not include collaboration by phone, email, in-person meetings, and other exchanges.

Innovation requires the carrying out of ideas, not just having them. The online competition gives global visibility to ideas. As the Changemaker team put it, “It surfaces them.” Our analysis suggests that using online competition as a way of making ideas visible to a worldwide community of people interested in change is the key innovative aspect of the collaborative competition, rather than the collaborative effort to improve proposals.

Still, strengthening the collaborative spirit could be achieved several ways. One way is to offer different awards. Contributions often range from speculative proposals to ideas that have already manifested in mature projects, thus a single category final makes the local soccer fan compete against the professional soccer player. Another thing to do is reward excellent commentators, or even invite schools or university seminars to actively comment on thematically close proposals. A third possibility is to change the rules of the games so that finalists must comment, and must respond to comments in the effort to further refine their proposal. Finally, we suggest making the link between proposals and comments clearly visible so that contributors and others can trace dialogue easily.

Of course, it is easy to make suggestions if you do not have to implement them yourself…but we have decided to explore the possibility of online (and offline!) collaboration further through the Big Jump Challenge. This competition will also focus on water (set to launch on March 22, 2012, World Water Day), and we’re developing it in co-operation with the betterplace lab, Viva con Agua, French social Entrepreneur Roberto Epple, the Grüne Liga, the Deutsche Umwelthilfe, and the Global Nature Fund.