When I moved from San Francisco to Doha to start my "academic career" experiment, I was excited about the romanticized notion of academic institutions: places where ideas freely flow and collide to form better ideas, environments where cross-discipline collaborations occur to create new innovations, and people who are driven by the common goals of creating a better world and a better future for all.
What I found so far has left me with much to be desired. Don't get me wrong - these things are still partially true, but not to the extent I had expected. I am often faced with scenarios where students are "afraid" to openly talk about their ideas to others so they won't get "stolen", where faculty members do not like to discuss their upcoming research proposals with others, and where many final exams still measure what you "know" not what you "can do".
At first I was puzzled by this phenomenon and attributed it to cultural factors. After all, we live in a region (and are within an environment) where "being smart" means higher social status. And having "good ideas" certainly means that you are smart.
But then, it hit me. And as someone who believes very strongly that incentives drive behaviors, I am embarrassed that it took me a while to figure this out. The reason people protect their ideas very closely is that we live in an environment where there is a "market" for half-baked ideas! If you have an idea and you can easily monetize it, why give it away?
When governments, non-profit organizations, or even private companies (trying to play good community citizens) attempt to spur innovations, they immediately think of the now-very-common approach: let's have an "innovation" competition. And since it is hard and time-consuming to create and structure results-based competitions (they require long-term commitment to monitoring results and hands-on mentorship, it is not possible to standardize the judging criteria, etc.), most competitions end up being events where awards or grants are given to the best ideas and the best plans. For most of our students, participating in these competitions mean: 1. have an idea, 2. do some research work to describe how you would "make it happen", and 3. prepare a decent presentation to wow the judges with your smart idea, good looks, and slick answers to their Q&A.
To be fair, not all innovation competitions are firmly on the "idea" end of the "idea-execution" spectrum, and I have seen a trend recently towards competitions where execution is at least "simulated" if not fully rewarded. Startup weekends and 24-hours hackathons are perfect examples. But still, the opportunities to get rewarded for coming up with "good ideas" are still there in abundance.
One may argue that these "idea" competitions are indeed valuable. They get the participants to think through an idea, prepare an action plan, and present it in front of smart people. So what's wrong with that? This is a very valid argument.