Idea Open asks citizens to weigh in on a critical issue: obesity

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March 29, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// The brightest idea wins $15,000 for implementation //

With the state of Minnesota on an unfettered climb toward fatness, experts in both the health and social policy fields are casting about for new ways to encourage slimming down.  They’re tired of telling us to eat right and exercise more. In fact, we know we should be eating right and exercising more. So why aren’t we? And what kind of community initiatives would help us start?

Well, who better to ask than us, the sweets-tempted, overeating populace?

At least that’s the theory behind the Minnesota Idea Open, a brand new idea competition that lets everyday Minnesotans take a crack at solving social problems. Citizens can surf over to the Idea Open website — a sort of Facebook of philanthropy, designed by Ashoka Changemakers, a Virginia-based juggernaut of social entrepreneurship — to read up on a critical issue facing Minnesota. They can brainstorm solutions in discussion groups and peruse and comment on what others have suggested.  And if so inspired, they can submit an idea of their own.

Entries are brief and off the cuff: simple, community-level proposals voiced in just a few sentences, each barely longer than a Twitter post. Visitors will eventually vote for their favorites, à la American Idol, and the winning idea will be granted $15,000 in seed money. The person who came up with it will get a $500 prize.

Both the prize and implementation money come from a four-way sponsorship split between the state’s big health insurers: Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Health East, Health Partners and U Care.

“We formulate education policy all the time without ever involving students or teachers on the front line,” said Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League, which will help out with judging Idea Open competitions.  “Or we try to evolve health policy without involving doctors or nurses. We’re finding that, in many ways, the secret to public policy is actually involving the public, the people who are impacted by the particular problem.”

“There are some problems where there are big grand solutions, where a group of experts does an analysis, and voila, here’s the solution,” said Jen Ford Reedy, vice president for strategy at the Minnesota Community Foundation, the organization that came up with the Idea Open. “But then there are these problems where you really need personalized solutions, where different things are going to work for different people.”

Obesity, the Idea Open’s inaugural challenge, is one of these problems.

Here lately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been publishing data that confirms what anyone who’s been to the State Fair already knows. We, as a state, are fat. And we seem to be getting fatter. The CDC reports that one in every four Minnesotans is officially obese. And by 2020, the experts estimate that only 23 percent of us will be at a healthy weight.

Strangely, the physiological “remedy” for obesity has long been pinned down: loosely, maintain a healthful diet and burn more calories than you take in. The complexity, though, comes in the myriad social, cultural and psychological issues that hinder our ability to make the lifestyle changes we know we should be making.

“We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations with health experts,” said Reedy, “and they’ve all said, ‘We know a lot, but clearly we don’t know enough. Because we’re somehow not doing the right thing to inspire people to make healthy choices.’”

“Professionals are out of ideas,” said Dr. Bill Doherty, from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Sciences. “Professionals tend to say, ‘Eat more fruits and vegetables, eat smaller portions, get your exercise.’ And you know, that comes across as a big downer. ‘Deprive yourself’ is not a message that resonates with the culture. So the idea with the Open is to get some ideas from regular people that might make achieving a healthy lifestyle more enjoyable.”

So, head-scratching experts want to know: how would you inspire your community to slim down? Install pull-up bars throughout Downtown? Kick off a cash-for-calories program that pays people to lose weight? Create “edible schoolyards” by planting small vegetable gardens on school property?

These were some of the first few ideas proposed on March 18, when the competition officially launched. Individuals can submit ideas up until April 9. At that point, a team of “community evaluators” selected by the Citizens League will narrow the pool down to 20 or 30 semi-finalists, and then ultimately three finalists. From May 3 to May 14, Minnesotans will vote for the winning idea.

Winning ideas will stick to a manageable, community scope, Reedy said, and they should be able to be recreated in communities throughout the state. Innovation and creativity are favorable, she added, but contestants shouldn’t be afraid to simply expand or improve upon an idea already in existence.

The Internet has long been a tool for hobbyists to go professional. Just think of the latest YouTube starlet or blogger-turned-journalist. Who’s to say there isn’t a budding social policymaker out there, waiting to be discovered?

“It’s super cool that this techonology is out there,” Reedy said. “Let’s put it to use for all of us together.”