Saturday, November 1, 2008

The WTN X-Prizes: Motivating Cathedrals of Achievement

The WTN X-Prizes: Motivating Cathedrals of Achievement
Jamais Cascio
October 24, 2004 4:24 PM

(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?

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