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No Good Deed Should Go Unrewarded: How Prizes Can Help Save the Ocean

Competitions can help solve some of history’s worst market failures
cleaning up the oceans


We need our ocean to be healthy, and for this it needs our help.
Credit: DVIDSHUB via Flickr

SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.

In case you have not heard, the ocean is not doing so well. In fact, it is in a state of crisis. It is being assaulted physically, chemically and biologically—making it warmer, more acidic and polluted. It has been overfished to the point that many fisheries are on the brink of collapse. As a result of these changes, weather patterns have changed, coral reefs are dying and species are becoming extinct.

This is a serious problem. Approximately 70 percent of our oxygen comes from marine phytoplankton. Billions of people around the world depend on the ocean as a food source or for their livelihoods. We need our ocean to be healthy, and for this it needs our help.

One of the best ways to improve oceanic health is to use prize competitions to create incentives to solve specific problems. Although often overlooked, prizes have been used for more than 300 years to solve vexing problems. Some of our greatest achievements have been inspired by rewards. For example, in 1927 Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize by becoming the first person to fly nonstop between New York City and Paris. His accomplishment revolutionized air travel and spurred the growth of the multibillion-dollar industry.

This is not to say that cash competitions will solve all of our problems. There are challenges that may be best solved via more traditional approaches, like R&D grants or regulations. Yet we know that prizes are particularly effective for stimulating innovation that can generate technological breakthroughs for many reasons: They target and correct market failures as well as define a problem without presupposing a solution, thereby incentivizing ingenuity and risk-taking. Rewards also encourage new thinkers to consider a problem and, as a result, generate novel approaches to solving it. And, unlike traditional research and development grants, cash competitions pay only for success. Furthermore, they mobilize and attract capital, stimulating new markets in ways traditional strategies cannot by providing significant financial leverage, oftentimes garnering a total market investment of five to 10 times the award’s value.

Such competitions also create the opportunity to engage the public around grand challenges—oil spills, ocean acidification, greenhouse gas emissions—inciting discourse and ultimately action. That is what we do at X PRIZE: We identify the world’s grand challenges and create competitions that inspire the brightest minds around the world to create technological breakthroughs.

The ocean’s declining health is the quintessential market failure of our time. We are giving little or no thought to how our collective actions are unsustainable in the long run. We have overfished our ocean, polluted it and damaged the fragile ecosystems potentially beyond repair. Due to these and other market failures, the ocean has suffered in ways that threaten its—and our—long-term health and viability.

We cannot reverse the damage already done, but we can contain it. In the wake of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, for example, we responded with the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, a $1.4-million competition to speed the pace of cleaning up seawater surface oil. Fourteen months later, the winner demonstrated technology that accomplished an oil recovery cleanup rate that was almost four times greater than the industry’s previous best recovery rate.

We are not stopping there. Over the next six years X PRIZE will launch three new ocean prizes These competitions will complement the success of the X CHALLENGE as well as build on the $2-million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X PRIZE, an active competition to develop accurate and affordable ocean pH sensors that could transform our understanding of ocean acidification. We are confident that these awards will lead to technological advances that not only improve the ocean’s health but our own as well.

Peter Diamandis is chair and CEO of X PRIZE and co-founder and chair of Singularity University.

To learn more about X PRIZE’s Ocean Initiative or to register to compete in the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X PRIZE visit oceanhealth.xprize.org

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