Every great innovation, from the wheel to the microchip, has required an imaginative leap into the unknown by someone willing to make what seemed like an outlandish idea into a practical reality. Some of these inventors sought honor and fame. Others wanted merely to help themselves, or others.
And often, there was a great deal of money to be made. Prize competitions continue today as a way to encourage our most creative thinkers to tackle our most vexing problems.
Nearly 300 "movers and shakers" from the world's corporate, non-profit and government sectors packed a United Nations meeting hall recently for the Incentive2Innovate Conference, which had been convened to explore cutting-edge ways to spur inventiveness through competition for prize money and other rewards.
"As humans, we have evolved to compete. It's in our genetic code," said entrepreneur and conference co-convener Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation.
"When people get lazy, they are happy with the way things are," added Diamandis. "But if we can tap into that human energy around competition, we can get people to do extraordinary things."
Competitions spur innovators to action
Diamandis first gained worldwide renown for arranging for the $10-million Ansari X Prize to whomever launched the first reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. The prize, which was awarded in 2004, gave a big boost to the private spaceflight industry.
The success of the Ansari X Prize prompted Diamandis and foundation sponsors and partners to plan other competitions to solve important challenges, notably involving energy, the environment, health care, life sciences, underwater exploration, education and global development. X Prize competitions are structured with clear, objective, measurable goals that will challenge creative thinkers anywhere on this planet, whether those thinkers are considered "experts" in the relevant industry or not.
"And the person who actually does it wins," said Diamandis. "This is about action."
Contest encourages youth to tackle technical challenges
At the Incentive2Innovate Conference, master inventor Dean Kamen noted that breakthrough achievements often require as much cooperation as competition. Kamen is founder of the FIRST Robotics Competition, which is designed to introduce teams of high school students to the pleasures of hands-on science and engineering work. He said that today's world is in a race between technical competence and catastrophe.
"We need way more kids in the next generation to be technically competent, or catastrophe is going to win this race," he warned.
In the FIRST Robotics Competition, the challenge is to use a bag of assorted parts to create a robot that solves a specific engineering problem - sending balls through a hoop, for example, or stacking tires on a pole - in the most efficient and elegant way. Prizes include medallions in several areas, and all participants are eligible for generous college scholarships.
At the initial FIRST championship in 1992, 28 teams competed in a high school gym. This year, says Kamen, 1,680 teams from 11 countries faced off in the Georgia Dome stadium.
"There is no question in my mind…," he added, "… that one of those kids somewhere is going to cure cancer, and another one is going to build an efficient engine that doesn't pollute, and another is going to work on some other major global problem."
Kamen said that is why those young competitors were actually building much more than a robot.
"They're building self-confidence. They're building an awareness of what the world is like for people who know how to think and solve problems. They are building serious relationships with serious adults."
Relationships are what 21st-century innovation is all about, says Charlie Brown, the director of Ashoka Changemakers. It offers up to 15 cash competitions each year for "social entrepreneurs" who are working to find solutions to global problems such as inadequate health care, women's inequality and water pollution.
Brown does not believe in the "one solution, one winner" approach. In contrast to many contests, where participants keep their ideas secret until a winner is chosen, Ashoka competitors share their innovative solutions online for anyone to see. It's a process Brown calls "collaborative competition."
"Sharing is what the best innovators do," he said. "We're playing off each other's ideas."
That's because, said Brown, "Innovators and social entrepreneurs want the problem solved. They don't want to spend the rest of their life [working on one problem] because that means they didn't actually succeed."
The faster people are replicating ideas, said Brown, "… the faster people are sharing ideas, and the faster we're going to solve this problem, and the faster we get to go to the next innovation!"
While inertia is always in competition with innovation, Incentive2Innovate Conference organizers hope that, given today's pressing problems, daring solutions will win the day.