Why not take the ideas generating stage and open it up to the people who design, build and create solutions to the smaller “First World” problems and the larger than life interplanetary investigations? If that seems a little vague, here’s the specifics: we need an X Prize for the boring, unglamorous stuff.
What’s the X Prize? It’s a foundation set up by engineer/entrepreneur Peter Diamandis to give out cash prizes to anyone who can solve scientific or design challenges that will benefit humanity: anything from launching manned spacecraft into space and unlocking the genetics needed to live to 100 to creating a personalised digital healthcare system or building cars that can do 100 MPG in real world driving. It’s essentially a set of competitions, completely independent from the US government but with sponsors such as Google, Nokia and Qualcomm, which gives out rewards that run into millions of dollars.
So that’s the larger than life, global concerns covered – Diamandis is of course planning to mine asteroids for valuable materials with his next venture– but who’s sweating over the small stuff? Well, I think this has been set in motion pretty nicely too by gadgets, apps and web services.
Don’t want to wait in the rain for a bus? Get a bus checker app for your smartphone. Moving house or need a job? Google is your friend. Lost your debit card? Use an emergency cash function at an ATM. Competitions like the James Dyson Award and Google Science Fair Grand Prize help young inventors to get their ideas off the ground too but neither is specific enough and £10,000 or so isn’t quite the same as a couple of cool million in the bank for the winning team.
If I was a philanthropist in Britain right now I’d be setting up a fund to get some of the country’s ducks in a row once and for all. We need competitions offering headline-grabbing sums of money, placements at bold private companies and some kind of relationship with the policy-making government. Why not take a punt on 3D printing and offer up a prize for the best system of localised object-printing centres to bring manufacturing – in a sense – back to the UK? Or a prize for the best design for new housing projects in London to stop rents rising even more? In health, we could have a prize for anyone who can build modelling software to demonstrate how your bad habits (smoking, diets, posture) will affect your appearance in later life that’s cheap enough to be freely available on the web.
The fact is there are plenty of big thinkers in this country but they’re not going to be attracted to the slow, democratic, bureaucratic system of government if they want to see results. And no, we really don’t need another Facebook either – that’s not going to help anyone.