Earth Awards

SUMMARY: I propose to build and launch such a system which I devised and filed patent for several years ago — a computer aided design (CAD) system for the collective design and funding of the highest ROI mechanisms for directing human effort and attention known: prizes, contests, and mass incentives. From the problem of calculating longitude to the X-prize for civilian human spaceflight to the present Buckminster Fuller Challenge, prizes and rewards galvanize our intentions and catalyze our actions like nothing else. The prizes and contests produced will not be ordinary prizes; they will be far beyond Web 2.0 since the preferred state I intend to achieve is one in which all of humanity contributes creativity, attention, and money to the most pressing issues facing our planet.

PROBLEM SPACE: Humankind’s safety, and some may argue its very survival, are threatened by climate change, rapid evolution and proliferation of potentially destructive technologies, and conflict over ideologies, religions and ever more volatile scarcities of natural resources. Why are we humans not more engaged in addressing these looming threats? Does our lack of action bring to mind the well-known experiment in which a frog tossed into hot water immediately jumps out to safety while the frog in the gradually heated water slowly boils to death?

To put it plainly and simply, the resources brought to bear on our most pressing needs in terms of time, money, and creativity are far below the threshold of what is required for a peaceful and prosperous future for all. But where our creativity leads us our time and money will follow, and so it may be said that mostly we are experiencing, as was said of 9/11, “a failure of creativity”. It is exactly as Buckminster Fuller declared in his 1962 speech at the Southern Illinois University commencement: “One of the great mistakes that society has been demonstrating in our last century has been that of leaving the most important problems to the men who are bankrupt in creative thinking ability.”

Another element of this general failure of creativity has to do with the acceleration of change in our times. In fact, anyone familiar with the works of futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler or Ray Kurzweil will attest to the demonstrable fact that we are yet in “the knee of the curve” of an exponential acceleration of technological evolution. This on its own is not bad. But what is potentially devastating is the lack of commensurate acceleration in the tools to guide our advancements to positive ends for all. It is as if we have developed rocket cars and are still expecting to control them with reins and a wooden handbrake.

I am acutely aware of the problem of this lack of syncopation between the pace at which changes leads us into potential trouble and the pace at which our creativity can lead us out of it. This is essentially a problem of competent design, for not only have the mechanisms that would harness the vast, largely untapped creative potential of our species not been designed yet, but the very tools for designing the design tools are also as of yet missing. What is needed is a tool that accelerates our capacity to creatively direct ourselves for good — something that links our capacity for creative good by way of a positive feedback loop with our rapidly changing technology and circumstances.

SOLUTION: My solution is a web-based toolset to guide any person through the process of creating and funding a prize, reward, contest, or mass incentive. To understand how this is far more than just web-assisted design, let me go briefly into the shortcomings of previous designs.

In 1999, my friend working in New York for Medicins San Frontiers called to say something to effect of “make sure you get the paper tomorrow” — it was the day before the announcement of their winning the prize of prizes, the Nobel Prize for Peace. I did buy a paper the next day, and I did find the article about their award, but only after sifting through the excruciatingly banal details of the recent Big Game Lotto winner of some $300 million, a fellow who paid for a 7-11 hot dog with a $100 bill and took his change in lotto tickets.

My realization was staggering. Alfred Nobel, for all his wisdom and brilliant foresight, could not have foreseen modern media (not to mention the Net), and as a result the design of the Nobel Prize itself was tiring. At least on that day, the Nobel Peace Prize could not “swim with the sharks” (such as the Big Game Lotto). I daydreamed about a philanthropic prize that could reclaim the world’s attention for our greater good. What kind of prizes could command large dollars, be as riveting and suspenseful as a Final Four basketball game or the most successful reality television series (such as Survivor or American Idol), and be consistently focused on the areas of greatest need? I realized that the needs addressed would need to be somewhat more dynamic that Nobel’s categories and that by and large the traditional model of philanthropy would need to be turned on its ear.

Traditional philanthropy is the domain of, usually older, large individual donors who, while not completely “creatively bankrupt”, it is fair to say they may not be the closest to the problems nor the most creatively insightful about their solutions. What if a child in Soweto or Shanghai had the best design for addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Tapping into that kind of collective creativity would require breaking the traditional philanthropy reliance on large individual donors and small circle of designers.

Rather than designing and individual contest or prize, I created a web-based system for designing, and funding prizes through collective “micro-philanthropy” employing the patent-pending innovation of Internet-based reward aggregation. A contest to raise funds to address, for instance, an ecological problem, might raise 5 donations of $1 million or 1 million donations of $5, or both. Rewards or bounties created through the system display via a “Bounty Counter” the total collected in real time, advancing like the New York “national debt clock” according to the rate of interest and new donations. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X-Prize, was recently quoted saying that in the future there would be prizes valued at hundreds of millions or hundreds of billions of dollars. I agree with this, and this proposal offers the Internet-based aggregation tools that could make that a reality within months of now.

The spectrum of the creative design possibilities in the system because it allows for an infinite number of design types since all of the constituent elements of contests can be considered variable. The constituent parts of contests and incentives include benefactors, beneficiaries, conditions to be met or solved, judges, actors or participants. In a “classic bounty” situation, the beneficiary is the party meeting the conditions; they cured the rare disease, therefore they win the prize. This form of bounty merely scratches the surface of what is possible. Who knows, perhaps the solutions to global warming will be brought about by contest in which the constituent parts are used in a completely novel and non-traditional way. Moreover, the system allows for the design of meta-rewards, or, in other words, rewards to design the best rewards.

The elegant part of my solution is its capacity for organic growth. And perhaps one of its greatest attributes vis-a-vis this Challenge, is that the amount of money offered and prestige that may be conferred is sufficient to have a lasting trimtab impact on this project just as this project will have a trimtab effect on the world. Moreover, if only this idea earns the validation of an organization such as BFI, other foundations I feel would understand and gladly participate as needed. The executive directors of two such foundations are among my advisers.
As someone who has developed enterprise software systems for Wall Street financial organizations and for the US Congress, I am intimately aware of time, personnel, and money involved with project of this scale. Also, as someone who works with new viral media with non-profits such as Habitat and the American Heart Association, I work daily with Web 2.0 and virally propagated online messages. In addition, I advise a working group including Arlington Public Schools and the National Science Foundation examining the challenge of cultivating capacities for creativity and innovation in young minds. I will certainly incorporate our insights into the creative process in this project. I will gladly provide graphics of this work, our prototypes and congressional systems.

People who have agreed to advise me (including Dennis Bushnell, the chief Research Scientist of NASA; Vance Ablott, Director of the NSF-sponsored Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology Education; Harriet Fulbright, philanthropist and President of the J. William & Harriet Fulbright Center; John Andelin, former head of the science division of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment) will provide the guidance and gravitas through the next stages of development. Even though this project is my brainchild and I am its instigator, I will not waiver if the good of the project requires that I step aside for a professional manager, such as philanthropist and Harvard MBA grad Anthony Priest.