“It’s like a really big flashing beacon, or a balloon, saying—hey! Look over here! Here's what we care about. Now go out and solve it,” says Fiona Murray, an expert on prizes and incentives at MIT.
There is a long and storied history of using prizes to solve big technical or environmental problems.
As late as the early 1700s, European sailors had a conundrum. They had figured out how to use the position of the sun, measured at noon, to pinpoint their exact latitude on the globe, so they could track how far north or south they had sailed. But they didn’t have any way of measuring longitude, so they had only the roughest of guesses about how far they’d gone east or west.
The British government set a reward of up to 20,000 British pounds (today, that would be about 3.4 million dollars) to anyone who could come up with some reliable way of determining longitude.
The most ocean-minded Europeans could not solve the problem: Not the captains or the boatbuilders or the scientists scratching out equations. The answer, instead, came from a clock builder named John Harrison, who built a clock that could keep precise track of time on the rocking decks of a ship. If sailors knew exactly what time it was on their ship, and the time at another place with a precisely known longitude, they could back out their own exact position.
Would the problem have been solved without Harrison? Eventually, says Reto Hofstetter, a management expert at the University of Lucerne in Switzerland. But the reward, or prize, incentivized him and many others to scheme and tinker in ways that sped up the discovery.
Big, complicated environmental issues like pollution rarely have an obvious fix either. But prizes can also work well to source creative solutions that may otherwise have gone un-invented.
Craig points to the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup Challenge, set after 2010’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Industrial cleanup companies proposed to use the same techniques they’d been using for years. But the organizers wondered if there was another solution, so they put out a $1.4 million prize for the best new ideas.
A team of young people—“who would never have otherwise ended up working on this problem together,” says Craig—proposed a whole new strategy: Stuffing casings with absorbent material and using those to mop up the mess.
Michel hopes the new Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge will spur similar creativity. “The key point is to help these innovators,” he says. “We want to help them grow, develop their product, do great innovation—and then go to market and get these ideas adopted by consumers.”