How to Solve All World Problems with Enormous Prizes (and a Dash of Ingenuity)

As a lead-up to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Jan. 18-25, Masdar sponsored a blogging contest called “Engage: Cities and Sustainable Development.” The following post was a runner-up.Reward Sign

By Jonathan Powell

Until 1714, navigating by sea was tricky unless you were in sight of land. Getting to France from England for the latest war was simple enough – you were bound to get there if you left the south coast and just kept rowing. But once explorers started trying to cross oceans, the difficulty in calculating longitude and position became an annoying problem. People kept drowning because they had no real idea where they were. Under the marvellously named Sir Cloudesley Shovell, the British Navy suffered the appalling Scilly naval disaster of 1707. One sailor from Genova even landed in America and thought he had reached India.

​To solve this problem, the British government made a simple decision. Nowadays it would be called crowd-sourcing, but back then it was called “offering an enormous prize to the first person who can provide a solution.” £20,000 was up for grabs, which is worth winning in 2014, but 300 years ago in 1714 it would have been more than enough to make a large investment – if the winner was mad enough – in the South Sea company.

As a result the world was given the chronometer, and England was able to rule the waves for years to come – okay, it wasn’t good news for everyone. Nevertheless, the theory still stands up. If you need something invented or a problem solved, offer a prize. If you want to solve a big problem, offer a big prize.

Our current world issues concern sustainable living and the husbandry of precious resources rather than navigation, but they can be solved in exactly the same way as used by the Commissioners for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea. Viz, a walloping great prize.

The problems to be overcome are well-documented. You might think your local city bus, tube train or metro is busy at the moment, but by 2050 more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. Research suggests they won’t all be in London competing with you to get on the Central line to St Paul’s, but not only do planners have to cope with this hefty increase in urbanization, they also have to do so with an eye to efficiency and sustainability.

It isn’t just the transport systems that will be creaking around the world. Urban energy usage needs to be addressed, as does the reliance of cities on water. Current waste disposal systems are reaching capacity and need to be rethought. Smart technology has a part to play, but more important is a complete overhaul of urban facilities and a reexamination of how they are provided. Prizes need to be offered for ideas to tackle energy usage, water efficiency, new building materials and innovation in all areas of city life. Everything can be integrated to reduce energy usage – from apps that tell drivers where parking spaces are to public transportation systems that reduce the need for parking spaces to internet connections to reduce public transportation usage.

New smart cities will be brimming with technological innovations, which will only come about if the great wealth of ingenuity that lies untapped in the people of the world is utilized. To advance sustainable development in cities there should be international awards offered for developments in:

  • Air-driven low impact sanitation to reduce the amount of water used in waste disposal.
  • Large scale, city-wide communal systems for heating and hot water.
  • Re-showers that recycle the water used in showers, cleaning it when it hits the floor and sending it down onto the showerer again.
  • Smart building materials that provide better environmental temperature control.

Entrants must not be restricted to large companies. The call must be sent out to men and women around the world working in sheds and bedrooms. Creativity is everywhere. The method is clear. The problems are clear. Ingenuity will provide the solutions.

History is full of examples of how prizes bring innovation. In 1908 the Daily Mail helped kick start the infant aviation industry by offering £1000 to the first person to fly across the channel. The result? In 1909 Monsieur Louis Blériot flew across the channel. Today the Google Lunar X prize is offering millions of dollars to the first private team that lands a spacecraft on the moon. If the needs of sustainable living are given the same prizes we will soon see great developments in the field. Or rather the city.

Image credit: Flickr/danxoneil

Based in the United Kingdom, Jonathan Powell blogs regularly on his site, The Flaneur.

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