Hot on the contrails of the awarding of the X Prize for private space flight, the World Technology Network has announced the creation of a new series of X Prizes "seeking to meet the greatest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century."
Not sure how much of this is vaporware, but it's always encouraging to hear people talk seriously about doing things like curing cancer and meeting the Millennium Development Goals. You can even roll your own suggested competition on their site, if you aren't doing anything with the next ten minutes of your life...
I helped the WTN put together the meeting, "Leapfrogging the Grid in the Developing World" focused on distributed generation technologies, at UNESCO in Feb 2004. (For more on that, ask me sometime.)
I think the idea of using prizes as a lever for change is obviously a good one, appealing to all kinds of human drivers, both noble and superficial -- ego, reputation effects, peer-to-peer filtering etc. -- but I left the experience with many questions.
For instance, more generally, what gives prizes their legitimacy?When do they verge on being gimics? And under what conditions do they actually make a difference?
Prizes like the Noble and McCarthur Genius Grant do this, practically speaking, through the provision of money. These prizes have built a careful brand over the years, backed by gold star intellectual cred, creating a logic of increasing returns. Even while their respective processes have been questioned in recent years, the feedback of money is perhaps the critical piece, translating things into practical deliverables, namely, enabling innovators to focus on their work. Also, the prestige (in part because of the money) legitimizes and raises awareness about their work, creating a virtuous circle.
I'm not sure what the specific deal is with the X Prize-WTN collaboration, but the WTN prizes in the past have been just awards, with no money attached and no real organization behind them to support worlchanging activities. (The WTN, as it stands now, is just one person, Jim Clark.) So I was left wondering about their enduring effectiveness, once all of the fanfare has died away. Perhaps with the X prize-WTN partnership these concerns will be moot.