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Prizes With an Eye Toward the Future

By Tina Rosenberg

Last week, David Bornstein wrote about how the Obama administration is using prize competitions to solve some of the problems government faces.   Agencies as different as the Department of Labor and NASA are recruiting ideas from the public by offering prizes for solving challenges.

While solutions these prizes generate are often innovative, the practice of offering them is anything but new. In 1714, the British government offered a prize of £20,000 to the person who found a way to accurately determine a ship’s longitude.   As described in the book “Longitude,” the Yorkshire carpenter and clockmaker John Harrison won the prize after decades of work by inventing a clock that worked at sea.    Harrison’s solution revolutionized the maritime world.
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Innovation for the People, by the People

By David Bornstein

Today’s and next week’s Fixes columns will focus on prizes and challenges as catalysts for innovation. This week, David Bornstein is taking a look at examples from the federal government’s open innovation strategies. Next week, Tina Rosenberg will explore how prizes have been used throughout history to accelerate innovation and will highlight examples of how they are being rediscovered today.

“A good government implies two things,” wrote James Madison in 1788. The first is “fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people.” The second is “a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.”
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Beyond SATs, Finding Success in Numbers

By Tina Rosenberg

In 1988, Deborah Bial was working in a New York City after-school program when she ran into a former student, Lamont. He was a smart kid, a successful student who had won a scholarship to an elite college. But it hadn’t worked out, and now he was back home in the Bronx. “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me,” he told her.
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Harnessing Local Pride for Global Conservation

By David Bornstein

The toughest problems to solve are the ones that are hard to detect and require humans to change their behavior. That puts conservation at the top of the list. According to the World Conservation Union, some 40 percent of the more than 40,000 species it tracks on its Red List of Threatened Species are in danger of becoming extinct. The renowned biologist E.O. Wilson has written that the “loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats” is a more serious risk than energy depletion, economic collapse or even limited nuclear war. “As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations,” he observed more than 30 years ago. The loss of biodiversity “will take millions of years to correct,” he added. “This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.”
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Innovations in Light

By Tina Rosenberg

People often write to Fixes telling us of cool new devices made for the poor:  the sOccket soccer ball that stores energy as children kick it; the neoprene LifeWrap that hospitals can use to save women hemorrhaging in childbirth; adjustable eyeglasses.

We love devices — but we don’t like to write about them.   It’s cheating.  The technology is the easy part of solving problems.  There are zillions of cool ideas.   Plenty of college students have come up with a great new technology for the poor.
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