The Longitude Prize: Many hands make light work
The British government was way ahead of its time when it established the Longitude Act of 1714. This was the first time an open call with a large cash prize had been made to solve a great problem - to accurately measure Longitude and determine the position of ships at sea.
This challenge had eluded great minds including Galileo, Halley and Newton. On the principle that many hands make light work - the British government thus invented crowdsourcing. The crowd responded with gusto, with many breakthroughs in measuring lunar distance and in horology. Ultimately the challenge was solved from an unlikely source – that of a self-educated watchmaker - John Harrison, for a clock which enabled accurate navigation. Sea travel was revolutionised and the benefit of crowdsourcing solutions with challenge prizes was proven.
After a short 300-year interval the Longitude prize is back and coming to your TV screens in a BBC2 Horizon special on May 22. This time though the crowd is being asked to determine the problem as well as the solution – and in our new era of digital participation - how else other than with a public vote for what topic we should choose and challenge the world to solve? This will form the new £10m Longitude Prize 2014.
The Longitude Committee has been working with Nesta and the scientific and enterprise community over the last 12 months to shortlist six major issues facing humanity where crowdsourced endeavour could once again unlock radical solutions with a major prize competition.
The public are invited to vote and choose between challenging the world to find solutions to:
- avert antibiotic doomsday – the rapid rise of antibiotic resistance threatens to drastically shorten the lives of us all
- developing zero-carbon flight – addressing the rapid growth of carbon emissions caused by air travel to help tackle climate change
- restore movement to those with paralysis - giving them close to the same freedom of movement that most of us enjoy
- enabling people with dementia to live independently for longer – an illness expected to affect many more of us as we grow older
- radically improve access to safe and clean water – large areas of the world are running out of water for growing food and to drink
- tackle food insecurity by improving access to nutritious food - a problem affecting two billion people worldwide.
The public are being asked to decide because these great intractable problems affect us all. It is not the domain purely of scientists and governments to determine action – the lessons from recent climate change science tell us what happens when public constituencies are not well enough engaged. We are looking for technology solutions, but none of these problems will be addressed without the buy-in and engagement of us all and none of these problems will be ‘fixed’ only with technology.
Antibiotic resistance is still little understood. We will need behaviour changes in our everyday relationship with precious antibiotics to complement any technology solutions. Low carbon travel needs to be in demand or technologies will remain in hangers. Assisted technologies for dementia and paralysis need to be culturally and morally acceptable to have traction. Tackling water and food security needs to be a challenge which electorates are bought into as a challenge which affects us all.
300 years ago the Longitude Act of 1714 was ahead of its time in challenging the crowd for a solution. In the spirit of the original, 300 years on, we begin a new chapter of the Longitude Prize – with the first competition of its kind to ask the public what the prize topic should be.
Watch and engage with the debate at www.longitudeprize.org!