Friday, November 23, 2007

New York Times on Innovation Prizes

The New York Times recently had an article on innovation prizes, including the ones managed by the X PRIZE Foundation (past, present, and many in the future, if current plans hold), as well as others managed by Innocentive,, and others.

The article contains a couple of critiques of innovation prizes. Here's one:

But its approach has raised questions in the nonprofit and foundation worlds.

These prizes tend to attract those people who have resources to begin with,” said Mr. Burns, the consultant, referring to space exploration contests and the like. “It doesn’t serve everyone, nor does it solve social ills. I’m not as excited about these prizes that seem to be nothing more than the pursuit of awards for capitalist happiness."

Give me a break.

If the prizes tend to attract people who have resources to begin with, so what? Maybe they'd be using those resources to buy a boat or something else a non-profit consultant would find particularly unattractive for someone else to have. Anyway, smart competitors without a lot of money have been finding a way to win innovation prizes - by going the cheap innovation route, or by getting sponsors, or by forming teams.

As far as "serving everyone and solving social ills", some innovation prizes actually for all practical purposes do one or both of these (and we may very well find, looking back 20 years from now, that the ones that did this the most dramatically were not the ones a socially-minded consultant would have expected to). Some don't, but so what? Does, or should, every traditional non-profit initiative serve everyone and solve social ills? No. Do the ones that try do it effectively? Not always, by a long stretch.

Does it matter if a non-profit consultant is "as excited" by innovation prizes, as long as the prize sponsors, teams, their sponsors, and the public are? I don't think so.

Is there something wrong with "the pursuit of awards for capitalist happiness"? I can't think of anything wrong with it. In fact it strikes me as being a positive spirit to inject into non-profit work. I'll also bet that it's a lot more useful, productive, efficient, and fun than a lot of other approaches.

Innovation prizes definitely have their limits. They aren't useful for solving a lot of problems, and even when they are, it's easy enough to design or manage them poorly. There are many cases where, even though an innovation prize would be successful and useful, other approaches would be even better. However, innovation prizes do have a lot of uses, potentially in a lot more applications than they appear in now. Let's face up to the real opportunities and limitations of innovation prizes, and not make up reasons to shy away from them.