The Genius Awards: Using Art as a Community Innovation Strategy

Posted by Mr. Robb Hankins, Jul 16, 2014 0 comments

Robb Hankins Robb Hankins

As part of ArtsinStark’s 20/20 Vision planning process, an Innovation Committee made up of ten community leaders created a strategy for positioning Canton and Stark County, Ohio as one of the 10 most innovative communities our size in America. One of the first initiatives we called the “Genius Awards.” In 2013 we began inviting companies to form 8-person teams to solve a challenge and come to the first Genius Awards, which were held on March 18 of 2014.

Here were our goals:

1) To have all kinds of companies to participate: high tech, manufacturing, law firms, banks, and newspapers.

2) To find a $5,000 sponsor, charge companies a $500 entry fee, and sell $25 tickets to the event.

3) To establish a “county innovation index” for improving the level of innovation in our county over time.

The Invite: We host one of the 60 united arts fund drives in America, so during our annual visit with company CEOs we planted the seeds for the “Genius Awards.” As soon as we got one of the biggest companies in the county to sign up and then banks and law firms, it got easier to sign up the rest. In the end, 13 companies agreed to send a team for year one. Here’s a link to the contract each company signed.

The Challenge: Eight weeks before the event, we delivered locked trunks to each company containing sheets of cardboard, balloons, cutters, glue, gaffers tape, a glue gun, a remote controlled inflatable robot, and a copy of the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence – along with the instructions, or the challenge. Here’s a link to the genius challenge and instructions, as well as the kinds of questions the teams asked us during the process.

The challenge had two basic parts:

1) Build an obstacle course consisting of a ramp, a tower, and an arch, and run your robot through it in less than three minutes; and

2) Improve upon the Preamble and, using one of the team member’s cell phone, produce a video capturing your preliminary results and post it to YouTube 24 hours before the event. Here is one of the 13 team videos that was submitted from Mercy Medical Center, the ultimate winners of the first Genius Awards:


The Innovation Index: We wanted to establish an innovation index or measurement of how innovative the county was right now as the basis for improving over the next five years. During the planning process our Innovation Committee agreed on six metrics to be gathered annually:

1) the number of patents approved using information from US Patent Office.  Here’s a link to slide explaining the Approved Patents measurement

2) the number of new business start-ups. At first we were going to use just high tech company startups, but the committee decided that a pizza shop would have to be just as creative to survive so we included all startups. Here’s a link to slide explaining the New Business measurement.

3) the number of young professionals. Our local YStark, an agency working with young professionals, created a survey tool for measuring this. Here’s a link to slide explaining the Young Professionals measurement.

4) the number of creative industries. This is already measure by Dunn and Bradstreet and Americans for the Arts; here’s a link to slide explaining the Creative Industries measurement.

5) the number of community innovation initiatives which we would measure by surveying various community organizations. Here’s a link to slide explaining the Creative Community Initiatives measurement.

6) the number of “innovation” success stories about Stark County in media which we chose to measure by the number of positive hits about Canton and Stark County in five major online news channels. Here’s a link to slide explaining the County Media Stories measurement.

Genius Awards Winner Mercy Medical Center Genius Awards Winner Mercy Medical Center

The Event: On Tuesday March 18, we hosted the first “Genius Awards” at the Cultural Center for the Arts. All 250 seats were sold. During the first hour the 13 teams ran their robots through obstacle courses set up in three different areas while local judges critiqued their performances. Meanwhile audience members sipped cocktails, munched gourmet pizza, and listened to a rock band. Next we sat everyone down to hear Thomas Jefferson portrayer Steven Edenbo talk about writing the Declaration of Independence. Then it was time to release the first county Innovation Index in America and announce the winning team from one of our local hospitals: Mercy Medical Center. Their team whooped and hollered all the way to the stage to collect a five-foot-tall trophy. Check out our video of highlights from the first Genius Awards: 


The Results: Year number one felt very successful. Here’s a link to the press release we sent out. We are taking the genius concept into our SmArts Program in the schools with “Genius Workshops” geared towards integrating arts and academics. We’re also experimenting in the neighborhoods with the “Genius Games.” In speeches now we talk about how the county arts council is really in the genius preparation and genius hospitality business, and it’s getting a good response. After all, what parent doesn’t want their kid to be a genius, and what community leader doesn’t want their community to be the kind of place that attracts the smartest people in the world. And it all started by doing what the arts are the very best at–taking a chance on a new idea.


Our blog salon on Unique Business Partnerships this week is generously sponsored by Drexel University Online.

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