Dump the innovation prizes?


In August 2013, Kevin Starr blogged controversially in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) that innovation prizes should be “dumped”, or at least massively reworked. Some of his criticisms:

  1. Competitions drain an already resource- deprived sector. They waste masses of time, generating many losers and thousands of lost hours for social change agents.
  2. There is too much emphasis on innovation, and not enough on implementation. “Great social entrepreneurs are people with high- impact ideas, the chops to execute on them, and the commitment to go the distance,” writes Starr, adding that they shouldn’t have to enter a contest to get what they need.
  3. Often, says Starr, major competitions ignore younger, more deserving organisations and award “the usual suspects” who have big budgets and a history of prizes.

Starr then goes on to propose guidelines for improving competitions (including that entrants must create first-round proposals during a lunch break and submit them on a napkin). Alex Deghan and Aleem Walji’s retort to Starr’s overall post argues that innovation prizes:

  1. Are less risky than traditional grants
  2. Help applicants clarify their ideas and connect with new partners
  3. Spur innovation
  4. Attract both new solvers and solutions to existing problems

Evidently, there is still much debate – McKinsey on Society reports that hard evidence on whether prizes spur innovation is lacking. But most seem to agree that the design of a prize is key. Futurist Dr Peter Diamandis gives away tens of millions through the X Prize Foundation. Diamandis tells The Economist that well-designed prizes can “change what people believe to be possible. He says that “focused and talented teams in pursuit of a prize and acclaim can change the world.”

This article is a continuation of the ← lead article “Social innovation prices: who really wins?”

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