On the battle fields of Europe some centuries ago, Napoleon had a problem: how could he feed his troops when the countries he was invading were not able or inclined to provide food?
Appert canning jar By Jpbarbier Jean-Paul Barbier - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3
The power of prizes
The French military leader believed in the power of prizes to incentivise innovation and spur on scientific and technological development.
In 1795 he offered a reward of 12,000 francs to improve upon the food preservation methods of the time. Fifteen years later, he finally awarded the cash prize to a confectioner named Nicolas François Appert. Appert’s method of heating, boiling and sealing food in airtight glass jars is pretty much the process we still use to can and preserve food today.
Challenge prizes are a very simple idea. You identify a problem, publicise the challenge and offer a reward to the person who can find the best solution. You attract the interest of the people with the right knowledge and expertise.
Challenge prizes offer a reward to whoever can first or most effectively meet a defined challenge. They act as an incentive or ‘inducement’ for meeting a specific challenge, rather than being a reward for past achievements (prizes that do this, such as the Nobel Peace Prize, are referred to as ‘recognition’ prizes).
Compelled by the powerful motivations that competitions tap into – the promise of a cash reward, the glory of being the first or best, the satisfaction of putting skills to use and making a change in the world – talented individuals and teams put aside what they are doing and make solving your problem one of their urgent priorities.
This simplistic story of how prizes work understates the strategic and practical decisions that underpin their success.
To have a chance of success…
You need to reach, attract and motivate the right innovators to work on your challenge.
You need to encourage individuals or teams to carry the risks associated with working towards an uncertain reward.
You need to measure and judge performance and to lay the groundwork for the uptake of solutions beyond the prize.
You also need to understand why your challenge hasn’t already been met, and whether you’ll be able to create the right conditions for making progress through a challenge prize.
A prize can focus attention on an issue, incentivise innovators and unlock additional finance and resources for your challenge, but may not resolve deeper systemic barriers to innovation.
Making a comeback
Challenge prizes are making a comeback, as governments and funders look for better ways to solve problems, create value and exploit the opportunities presented by collaborative technologies.