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At the end of a fun summer Saturday, just before Father’s Day, my son and I sat ourselves down and decided to see what was on teevee.  There, on the Science Channel, was just what we were hoping for – the RoboGames with Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame.  It’s a competition of remote controlled devices that thrash, rip, and sometimes shoot fire at each other in a metal wrestling match running amok.  It’s great stuff.  There’s spectacle, destruction and competition – the battle to prove you are the best.

It’s enough to make my son get out his drawing notebook and talk about a father son trip to the Ax Man surplus store, too.

This may seem like a simple father-son moment of geekdom, but it’s much more than that.  Competition is the best way to fire the imagination, engaging heart and arm and brain.  It could even be an important tool of public policy.

Another good example of competition are the X-Prizes, made famous by their $10M prize to for civilian spaceflight.  Beyond even the competition was the spark of imagination that has now spawned Virgin Galactic, what may be the first of a new industry.  Less well known are the many X-Prizes in other fields, including the recent $5M prize for a 100 MPG (or equivalent) car.

If these contests fire up the energy of clear, creative minds beyond the prizes given you know that something great will come if.  Now, imagine for a moment that there is some serious money behind it and some very big attention.

Take 300 million dollars.  Start by carefully outlining, in detail, exactly what our nation needs, such as a renewable energy source that is plentiful and affordable.  Once you have very specific targets, the whole prize can be seeded by 1,000 grants of up to $100k for people and institutions like corporations or universities that have some decent ideas.  Throw in some interim goals for additional awards of 100 $1M grants to reduce their systems to practice and prove them on a bigger scale.  The best one at the end wins a monster prize of $100M to do with as they please.

This may seem like a lot of money, but $300M is less than $1 for every person in the nation.  For that, a big contest with some serious cash both up front and as a prize could change the way we do nearly anything.

As the X-Prizes have shown, the spirit of competition is about much more than the money.  Winning is what it’s all about at some point, and an organization that is deep into the process will put up its own money for the prestige.  If Big Ten (or so) schools can put so much into football, why not the Energy Bowl?

If our national security is worth anywhere near as much as the more than one trillion dollars we’re putting into Defense, Homeland Security, and so on every year, it’s certainly worth 0.03% of that for energy independence.  One prize may not change the landscape completely, but start a contest like this every year for a specific goal of some kind and in a decade the economy might look very different.  It probably would create quite a few jobs as well.

The best teevee shows for my son are the ones that get his notebook and pen out before they are over.  RoboGames certainly got his imagination flowing and sense of competition fired up.  Imagine that energy being directed into a public good with some serious cash behind it, and you might change a lot more than just a technology – you could change a nation’s outlook.

19 thoughts on “Challenge

  1. Excellent idea! Imagine way more than just energy too. Devising a computer system that allows health systems to be integrated yet secure could be one. Or new designs for public housing. There are so many things that could be done as challenges and you’re right that they would be cheap compared to how we do things now.

  2. Anna: Yes, I’m sure there are many things I didn’t think of which could use this model! I want this to be one tool in our public policy toolbox is the main point. Energy independence is just one example!

  3. A little while ago you talked about putting together a platform or a plan of all the things you reccommend. I would still like to see that. This is a good addition to the mix and it sounds very cheap compared to most of what we do.

  4. If 5 million was enough for a contest to get a 100 MPG car and 10 million enough to get people into space you probably could get a lot for a hundred million. This is an excellent idea. But I also agree that I see a platform coming together. 🙂

  5. This is an excellent idea and very reasonable in a time when we have to balance the budget first.

  6. Axe Man is a great store. A father-son trip to that could be a lot of fun and I can not wait to hear about what comes from that!

  7. Bob: That’s what I am constantly looking for. We need to break the economy free on the cheap. That means we need to break government free, too. There is no box! 🙂

    Jan: Thanks! I am looking forward to what comes of it, too!

  8. I imagine that it would be tough to write the rules for such a contest with the stakes so high but I think it’s a great idea!

  9. Audrey: Thanks. There are a lot of lawyers in the Federal Government so it shouldn’t be too hard. Besides, if Congress (antonym: progress) actually got a bill together it could indemnify the heck out of anything they did. 🙂

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  11. I have seen ideas like this before, but this is particularly well thought out. I agree, this is a cheap and effective way of getting things done fast.

  12. Kevin, Bob: It is my hope that we look for the obvious and cheap solutions – but more importantly, try everything and keep our eyes on the results. We have to look towards not just patching this system but restructuring it. That’s the only way out of this kind of situation historically, and I am sure that our times are no different at heart.

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