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:
- Competitions drain an already resource- deprived sector. They waste masses of time, generating many losers and thousands of lost hours for social change agents.
- 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.
- 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:
- Are less risky than traditional grants
- Help applicants clarify their ideas and connect with new partners
- Spur innovation
- 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?”