The Challenge Model: An “Outside-In” Approach to Tough Problems

January 2020
Topics: Innovation, Collaborative Decision Making, Decision Support (General), Collaborations, Scientific Research and Development
Sometimes the most innovative way to find creative solutions to government's biggest concerns is by bringing more minds to the table. That's why MITRE has added the challenge concept to our problem-solving toolkit.
Two colleagues problem-solving at a computer together

What does safely snatching hostile unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) from the sky have in common with identifying people who are trying to defraud government benefits programs? 


But in this case, "challenges" aren't the problem—they're part of the solution. 

Here's what we mean: Challenges are a form of open innovation, which at its most basic level is an “outside in” approach, where external ideas and technologies are brought into the firm’s own innovation process. With challenges, a group of people—entrepreneurs, students, industry experts, and others—are invited to compete by offering their best solution to a difficult problem within a limited time, often for a prize. 

We're enough of believers in the concept that we've created our own, bringing the power of collaboration and brainstorming directly to our government sponsors. To date, our MITRE Challenges have tackled four large, complex problems including  multicultural name matchingcountering unauthorized UAS, mitigating the risks of the Internet of Things, and strengthening eligibility verification for federal benefit programs. 

Winners of MITRE Challenges not only receive a financial prize but also the opportunity to demonstrate their newly developed capabilities to a variety of federal agencies. And when appropriate, MITRE helps the participants with outreach and licensing of their new technologies to government and industry. 

“Challenges enable a wide swath of innovators to apply new concepts to actual problems,” says Duane Blackburn, who led the MITRE Challenge program for many years. Before joining MITRE, Blackburn was an Assistant Director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP)during the Bush and Obama administrations.  

He says that, particularly in the past decade, government agencies have recognized the value of the challenge model, whether our own or the government's. “It’s a flip of the normal process which defines every detail, top town. With a challenge, you define the problem, provide clear parameters, and a goal—but leave it to the participants to determine how they’ll achieve the goal," Blackburn says.  

“You want to go in it knowing what success looks like, but if you’re surprised by how they did it, all the better.”  

Challenging Students, Faculty, and Other Experts   

The MITRE Challenges are corporate-level major competitions, often involving large prizes ($100,000). They take place over months and are often held in collaboration with government agencies. However, MITRE also applies similar concepts for smaller competitions, often involving student and faculty. For example, “hackathons” often take place over a day or weekend. They can involve a group meeting—or just take place online. 

Michael Balazs, who co-led the MITRE Challenge: Countering Unauthorized Unmanned Aircraft Systems, has also led numerous student-focused competitions. “While hackathons are smaller in scale, they can certainly take on some serious topics.” 

"The goal of a student hackathon is primarily about giving them the experience of collaborating, working with advanced tools, and access to a wealth of information. Getting students excited now about that kind of work will pay big dividends against the world’s tough problems ahead."  

Some examples:

  • The Pandemic Hack2React was one of more than a dozen hackathons that MITRE sponsors each year both internally and externally. We challenged students to apply their machine-learning skills to real-time disease monitoring worldwide.
  • Embedded Capture-the-Flag (eCTF) is a security competition that puts students through the experience of trying to create a secure system and then learning from their mistakes. 
  • Healthcare Anti-Fraud Academic Competition invites students at U.S.-based colleges and universities to team together to develop innovative approaches for ferreting out healthcare fraud—a multi-billion-dollar problem—using a dataset and tools provided by MITRE. 

Challenges Put a Bullseye on Important Problems

Blackburn points out challenges have something in common with more traditional research methodologies: they don’t necessarily have to solve the problem to be useful. 

“Sometimes a challenge identifies the gaps in solutions or even a basic understanding of the problem. It can quickly show the state of the possible—or lack thereof—in the space. It can paint a bullseye on an issue that others may not be aware of.

"And it can give you a variety of new people to help figure out what to do next."

To learn more about the challenge model and open innovation, check out "Managing Open Innovation Challenges—Key Questions for Success," by Marcie Zaharee, project lead for MITRE’s Innovation Program, or visit the government's information at

—by Bill Eidson

Explore more at MITRE Focal Point: Experimentation and Research.


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