Sponsors hope everyday ‘makers’ can jump-start progress in smartphone voice recognition, carbon emissions and new uses for canned tuna


Edgar Sarmiento of Bogotá, Colombia, had a new degree in design, a head full of ideas, and no place to put them into practice. Then last year he saw a competition sponsored by a startup in Phoenix, called Local Motors, which offered a prize of $8,000 to anyone who could dream up a better city transit system.

That got him moving.

Within two months, Mr. Sarmiento had created the winning entry on his home computer: an electric-powered, driverless shuttle bus that can be summoned on demand. Local Motors has already built two of the vehicles, using 3-D-printed parts, and is field-testing them in Berlin and at National Harbor, Md.

“It was amazing,” says the 25-year-old Mr. Sarmiento.

Stumped for solutions to hundreds of industrial and technical problems, businesses and governments alike are turning the search for innovative ideas into prize-worthy puzzles that capitalize on the ingenuity of the crowd.

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