Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tom Vander Ark on Future X PRIZE Ideas

Tom Vander Ark of the X PRIZE Foundation asks Can prizes change behavior? He compared the 3 X PRIZEs to date - Ansari, Genomics, and Lunar Lander - to future prizes they may start in areas like education that may be less easily improved for large populations (which is their goal) by technology or by single impressive and perception-changing feats like the Space Ship One flights. In these challenging domains, they may have to design the prizes even more carefully to be able to influence broad populations and policy makers to act differently.

Tom's blog post gives some hints about where they may be going with these types of prizes. He says:

Another design that we’re considering in health, education, energy, and global entrepreneurship is a prize for dramatically improved outcomes in a defined population.

I agree that some areas like health, energy, and education require improvements in lots of areas beyond technology. In fact, I think space is like that too, even though it's seen as mainly a technology area. In fact the main influences in space are social, like law, economics, policy, and public perception. Still the technology prize approach was able to accomplish a great deal in that arena besides the actual technology improvement itself. Because it's so much easier to manage than a less easily measured population prize, I might be inclined to stick with technology innovation prizes if at all possible. It certainly seems that there are plenty of technology roadblocks to overcome in areas like health and energy. It's also easier to sustain an improvement once a technology roadblock has been overcome, whereas a social improvement may easily be lost.

Tom's blog post makes it sound like they aren't losing the technology innovation aspect, but that the prizes may add to that facet:

Well constructed media savvy prizes can do both—promote technology innovation and demonstrating its impact at scale by changing perceptions and public systems/policy. ... Imagine thousands of households reducing their energy consumption; imagine thousands of people around the world participating in a math competition; imagine thousands of people living longer as a result of longevity challenge.

Hmmm ... longevity competition ... are they talking to the Methuselah Mouse Prize folks?

I can imagine incentive prizes that include lots of participants, such as an education prize that involves a competition, say, of 20 high school classes without a lot of advantages to excel in academics (perhaps with space-related or similar competitions like some of the student prize competions described on this blog as part of the rankings). Perhaps every student in the winning school class would get a scholarship (maybe in special cases teachers and students would even get a Teachers in Space type of suborbital ride - or perhaps a Zero-G ride if anyone at the X PRIZE Foundation knows someone who can arrange such a thing - as an extra reward if the vehicles get built), and presumably all of the students in all of the schools would be better off for having entered the challenge. I could also see such a challenge offering lots of publicity (and therefore potentially prize funding so it can be repeated the following year) through events like reality TV show episodes.

Still, I hope the technology innovation aspect doesn't go away.

It will be interesting to see what they come up with. The post leaves a lot to the imagination. I find it difficult to evaluate ideas like this one way or another without a specific concrete proposal.

Tom also posts on a new theory based on prizes that turns the traditional philanthropy model on its head. This post seems to be closely related to the other one.