2015, Year of Stretch Targets
There’s an expressive phrase in American English that distils the essence of what defence analysts call a “target-rich environment”: shooting fish in a barrel. At times it was rather like that at Nesta’s Challenges of Our Era Summit, held at the Royal Society on 4 December. In short order, I met a group of people I had intended to track down for ages, all of them working on the burning question of how to use Grand Challenges and incentive prizes to spur the development of potentially breakthrough solutions.
Convened by Nesta’s Centre for Challenge Prizes, the event fleshed out thinking outlined earlier in the year in their guide on how to use challenge prizes to the best effect. As the guide noted, and it was a theme underscored at the event by Jenn Gustetic, Assistant Director for Open Innovation at The White House, “Prizes come in all shapes and sizes. They aim to effect change on vastly different scales and require different levels of commitments from participants.”
At one end of the spectrum, for example, there are ‘mega-scale’ prizes like the Ansari X prize offered by the X Prize Foundation and won by Burt Ratan, using technology that would later become the core of the Virgin Galactic near-space tourism offering. The recent tragic death of test pilot Michael Alsbury spotlighted the risks involved in some such efforts. At the other end of the spectrum, as Nesta notes, “lots of prizes offer modest prizes. Microsoft and Google joined forces in a project known as HackerOne, offering small rewards of between US$300 and US$5,000 to ‘friendly hackers’ who could find glitches in their programmes.”
As I mentioned in my summing up at the end of the event, I first came across incentive prizes almost exactly 50 years ago, when I chose to do a fairly substantial school project on the chronometer-maker John Harrison, whose name is now indelibly linked with the first Longitude Prize. My interest in challenge prizes was then given an energetic nudge a couple of years back when I sat down to write The Breakthrough Challenge with Jochen Zeitz, at the time Chairman and CEO of the German sportswear company Puma and now co-chair, with Sir Richard Branson, of The B Team. We dug deep into the history of Grand Challenges, including the use of the approach by DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and in the Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges for Global Health programme.
My interest in stretch challenges and incentives was reignited. Indeed, the next stage of Volans’ Breakthrough Capitalism program will probe the question of how we can more powerfully align emerging global goals, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals set at and around the COP 20 and 21 conferences, to the next generation of business targets and incentives.
I have spoken of stretch targets at several hundred business conferences since an X Prize Foundation team visited us in London in 2004, but I have often been struck by the fact that many people in the Global C-Suite still struggle to see the relevance of stretch targets in the sustainability field. For them, this is a matter for Chief Sustainability Officers, with the focus on stakeholder engagement and reporting. For me, by contrast, it’s about the profound processes of creative destruction that global capitalism will need to go through to emerge fit for the future.
I am immensely grateful to Nesta for the opportunity to meet a considerable number of pioneers in the field. My New Year’s resolution for 2015 is to work out how to wake up the CEOs, CFOs and CXOs of the Global C-Suite to the fact that, in William Gibson’s glorious phrase, “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And a key place to look for clues on what it will look like, and where it will take their companies, is in the stretch world of Grand Challenges and incentive prizes.
So in 2015, which we see as the year of stretch targets, I plan to dig even deeper into the world of Grand Challenges, stretch targets and incentive prizes. A key question: how can these tools be used to drive change in what we are calling the Breakthrough Decade, from 2016 to 2025? As American futurist Alex Steffen has summed up the challenge: “What happens in next 40 years is critical for all humanity for centuries to come. What happens in the next 10 years sets the range of what’s possible.”