In 1795, Napoleon Bonaparte instituted a prize for an invention that would help always provide his troops with food. The eventual result came to be canning. So while we might believe that competition in the market place is a force for innovation, competition for some prize may also work.

In the late 1960’s, Ny Teknik, a Swedish technology journal, sponsored by a large energy producing concern, advertised a substantial money prize for ideas on how to make better use of cooling water from nuclear power stations – better use of a potential resource than just dumping into the sea. This competition drew an international field of entrants though the first prize eventually landed with a large Swedish construction consultancy.

Sweden has the world’s oldest Inventors’ Association, and ten years before its 100th anniversary in 1986, thus in 1976, they announced a competition for inventions geared at needs in the developing world, International Inventors’ Awards. It was the brainchild of the foresightful professor (and inventor) Carl-Göran Hedén, who also saw to it that a series of preparatory activities converged on defining the most urgent such needs. In 1986, a number of prize-winners were honored by Sweden’s King, and the top prize went to an organization, Intermediate Technology Development Group, that I mentioned in my previous installment here.

Fast forward to today, or almost. The Netflix Prize, aimed at developing an algorithm for ranking movies distributed and rented through Netflix, has met much interest, partly because of its size, 1 M$, partly because of the mechanisms for collaboration involved: competitors teamed up as the competition progressed, stepwise (with smaller amounts of prize money for these steps).

Another prize grabbing headlines is the X Prize that is a platform and an organization for allowing sponsors to donate substantial prize money towards innovations they deem worthy. They, and the X Prize description in Wikipedia, go a long way back, though not to Napoleon: the first X PRIZE was inspired by the Orteig Prize, $25,000 offered in 1919 by a French hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris, a prize won by Charles Lindbergh. Nine teams spent a total of $400,000 in pursuit of the Orteig Prize. In 1996, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis offered a 10 M$ prize to the first privately financed team building and flying a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. This, the Ansari X PRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight, got 26 teams from seven nations to invest more than 100 M$ in pursuit of those 10 M$. On October 4, 2004, the Ansari X PRIZE was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures with their spacecraft SpaceShipOne. One of the more well-known X Prizes (Wikipedia mentions six) is established by Google, the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a competition to put a robot on the moon. The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE aims at generating innovative solutions to speed up the cleaning of seawater surface oil from spillage from, e g, tankers and ocean platforms.

Like Netflix (and for that matter Google), General Electric is profit oriented. Profits may be created also out of environmental concerns, thus their Ecomagination initiative. Again, prizes can be won (total sum: 200 M$), the process managed with the assistance of Brightidea.

Another process facilitator, with a different profile, less competition, more brokerage in open innovation, is Ideaken: their key message is collaborate to innovate.

Non-profit Netsquared is as socially oriented as professor Hedén, and in a way even more so in the sense that they honor ideas in social entrepreneurship. Again, they highlight, among other factors, collaboration for innovation.

Bit & piece

My (two) odd pieces for this time almost tie in with those competitions. They may both be seen as relying upon the wisdom of crowds (a subject and a reliance that could fill volumes so they are but two examples). In Sweden, government has started (and oh, how controversial!) to try out crowd-sourced culture financing. Culture projects are presented on a web site (so far, it’s a beta test, regretfully in Swedish only for the time being), and citizens are invited to vote with their, well, wallets. But financing obtained from the crowd will be a signal to the government to invest more in a project – not that government financing has been substituted.

Lifehacker is a fun blog-like site that offers tips on, yes, how to hack – hopefully improve – on your life’s practicalities. Lifehacker regularly asks site visitors for their tips or best-so-and-so, and then, a couple of days later, reports back to the crowd the wisdom of the (sub-)crowd that provided its judgments.

Feynman’s Law of understanding

Nobel prize winner (a prize again!) Richard Feynman was more colorful, drastic, and popularizing (and bongo drumming) than most physicists, thus gaining unusual public recognition. One of his paradoxes – Feynman’s Law – is that ‘if someone claims to be able to explain quantum theory, then he or she has not understood that theory one bit’.

What if someone claims to have a sure-fire prescription for all of innovation?