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The WTN X-Prizes: Motivating Cathedrals of Achievement

(WorldChanging ally Hassan Masum contributed the following essay:)

When SpaceShipOne cracked the 100 km barrier for the second time to win the Ansari X-prize, the significance of a cheap, reusable, suborbital launch vehicle was celebrated all around the world. As we reported previously, the WTN is following up by proposing a series of social X Prizes, and asking for suggestions. What challenges are worth setting up as prize targets? And as Nicole Boyer asked about prizes, "...under what conditions do they actually make a difference?"

Well, let's think about it a little differently: as an investment problem. Suppose you had from $10 to $100 million to spend, in social entrepreneurship or philanthropy. You want to create new technology or solve a longstanding problem - to bring something new into the world that increases the range of the possible. How could you get the best impact for your money?

As Nicole noted, there's the Nobel prize and MacArthur Fellows models. While the former has more name recognition, the latter probably has more impact - it gives 5 years of financial independence to cool people while they are still in their active and creative years. As they say, "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society."

Then there are the high-risk grants made by some funding agencies, like DARPA and more recently the NIH (National Institutes of Health). From the mission statement of the brand-new NIH Pioneer Award: "History suggests that leaps in knowledge frequently result from exceptional minds willing and able to explore ideas that were considered risky at their inception, especially in the absence of strong supportive data. Such individuals are more likely to take such risks when they are assured of adequate funds for a sufficient period of time, and with the freedom to set their own research agenda."

On a society-wide basis, putting social investment funds exclusively into high-risk grants is about as sensible as picking only startups for your retirement savings plan. But just as mixing asset classes is essential in finance to bound your downside while benefiting from potential upside, we need some degree of reaching beyond our comfort zone in experimenting with social systems and technology. If you can evaluate potential rewards well enough, the few stellar successes make all the rest worthwhile.

Of course, that's the whole trick - how to evaluate potential? The bottom-up grants above evaluate a person's work as an observable proxy for their future potential, on the theory that cool people will naturally keep doing cool work. Traditional research grants occupy a middle ground, using peer review to try to estimate how much value a proposed line of work will generate. The WTN X-prizes are then at the opposite end of the spectrum, with no evaluation of people (the starting point), or of proposed research (the journey) - instead there's only a big fat prize for success (the destination).

If the destination satisfies deeply held human needs, then grand challenges shore up failures of the market by creating a "social demand" for uneconomic yet necessary tasks, going beyond typical consumer demands to make manifest a latent, distributed desire. Think of it as making a market for goals higher on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Monetary prizes aren't always the best motivating force, especially for inherently distributed ventures like Wikipedia...but at least they focus attention on issues.

To many of us, grand challenges lie in large-scale social technology - macro-relations, if you will. Take this group blog as an example. Many of you read Slashdot, and despite all its faults it does manage to filter contributions from millions of readers. How could a more action-oriented site like WorldChanging be scaled up into a self-managing SlashWikiBlogNoosphere community of millions, with the quality of output continuously increasing as users are added? How could social software enable a community so resourceful that it could, for example, use collaboration, filtering, and modeling tools to rapidly develop solutions for global emergencies and disasters?

Cathedrals in Europe still evoke wonder and admiration - what "cathedrals of achievement" can we build to match that in the 21st century, to remind us every day of higher goals that matter?

Comments (7)


Two big problems around the world which, if solved, would have a giant impact:

How do you provide clean water for everyone?
Is there a safe, affordable, efficient, and non-polluting cookstove for every family?

I'd also like to see an international design competition for refugee shelters using the current materials standard the UN uses:

75 square meters of heavy plastic
40 square meters of clear plastic sheeting
2 wood boards
60 1 meter wood strips
20 meters of adhesive tape
2 kilograms of nails, various sizes
staple guna nd staples
cross-cut handsaw
shovel and bucket
40 meter length of rope

David Birdwell:

A "social" X-prize goal could be a set of green, sustainable and inexpensive electrical power generation systems custom-engineered to the worlds main microclimates. The climatic regions would be predefined, perhaps with prizes for each solution, so teams wishing to only tackle one climate could compete. Solutions should be easily implementable by local populations.

A good idea to advance locally-oriented sustainable energy production?

Brett Shand:

Following Michael Moore who said "Real people don't run for office," it would be a very good thing to find out how we might develop a system of government where "real people" will run for office.

This raises a raft of questions about the nature of democracy and corruption and special interests.

It has been said that democracy isn't a perfect form of government, but all the other forms are so much worse. I believe the distinction between democracy and the other forms is no longer clear.

So the question I propose is "What comes after democracy? How do we move on?"

to gmoke:

Mechanical engineer and MacArthur Fellow Amy Smith is working on the second of your questions: how to make an affordable clean burning stove for every family. It seems that you have the same mindset as her.

to gmoke:

Starting in the summer of 2005 my organization, Architecture for Humanity, will be hosting an international design competition called 'Rethinking Tent City' to look at sustainable design interventions in long term refugee camps and settlements. Although not exactly what you are looking for it is close and designers have the criteria to use existing and/or appropriate technologies.


I've met with Amy Smith and know about her work in Haiti on bagasse charcoal. She's really something and has finally made an inroad at MIT for appro tech, something that has been sorely needed for a long, long time. Kate Steel is one of her associates on the D Lab course she teaches.

As for "Rethinking Tent City," I think it is a good idea but wonder why you don't start from where the UN is at now. How would design professionals maximize what the system actually is today? From that point, maybe we can build up to something that is more innovative.

Last summer, Harvard Graduate School of Design held a seminar on refugee shelters led by Matthew Jelacic. Their module includes round bases made of GRC (?) with a water filter contained in the structural ceramic columns. The round bases allow these things that look like tenesegrity toys to roll to new locations. I saw the posters that the participants exhibited and it looked interesting but not necessarily like anything that a refugee would feel sheltered, in all senses of the term.

Of course, there's also Professor Behrokh "Berok" Khoshnevis of USC who is working on an idea he calls contour crafting, a kind of large-scale 3D printing using quick-drying cement and an extruding machine. He thinks he can build a 2000 sq ft house in a day.


Analogous to the original X-Prize:

How about a prize for designing and building a prototype of a solar/ethanol/biodiesel-powered train engine that can be built, fuelled and maintained locally and cheaply (for under some fixed price)?


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