To solve today’s problems, you need new ways of thinking

Gone are the days of the lone genius tinkering in a workshop - today’s global challenges require global collaboration, bringing together people with different skills to try and solve problems in different ways. And often, the usual suspects aren’t the only ones with good ideas.

Over the past 20 years, challenge prizes have seen a renaissance as tools for innovation. In a society where we can crowdsource the answers to our questions through social media, the appeal of the method is clear. Challenge prizes pose a specific question and offer a financial reward to anyone who can solve it the fastest. Not only do they draw in more innovators from wider fields, but they come up with better solutions.

Prizes aren’t a new idea. Centuries ago, the discovery that helped Britannia rule the waves came out of the Longitude Prize, launched in 1714 and aimed at finding a solution to accurately measure longitude at sea. John Harrison created a portable clock that did just this, and won over £23,000 - because knowing the time is the key to accurately navigating by the stars.

But just as importantly, a range of other inventors won smaller prizes from the Board of Longitude. The Longitude Prize didn’t insist that the solution had to be a clock - and so among the winners were wildly different approaches to the problem, from new astronomical methods to improved designs for the sextant.

Today, prizes are back. The radical openness of the original Longitude Prize - almost complete agnosticism about what the solution should look like - is remarkably well suited to the way innovation works today. The fact that anyone with the skills can submit an entry makes the solutions more robust. Instead of having just one device from one provider, we can compare radically different approaches, evaluate and test them - and find out which is best. Openness also means avoiding some of the usual pitfalls of innovation.

The media has reported widely on the biases often built into new technology - from racist soap dispensers and homophobic smartphones to sexist AI - that can arise out of the lack of diversity in the tech industry.

What better way to embed diversity in technology, than to encourage a diverse range of problem solvers to create it?

In 2014, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act, we launched a new Longitude Prize: this time, it is to help solve the alarming rise of drug-resistant infections.

Poor use of antibiotics over the past 70 years means they are getting less effective, just as the supply of new antibiotic drugs is slowing: we’re losing the race against the superbugs. And there isn’t much incentive to solve the problem either. Drug companies aren’t incentivised to sell fewer drugs, nor are doctors rewarded for not prescribing them.

So the new Longitude Prize is all about creating new diagnostic tests that tell people whether or not they need antibiotics - reducing the widespread misprescription of them for people who don’t need them.

But beyond a few key criteria, we’re open to any reasonable way of solving the problem. It could be solved by engineers, doctors or chemists; they might solve it with a machine, a reagent or some smart software. Providing it fulfils our eight criteria, including cheap and accurate, we don’t mind.

So far, 250 teams in over 40 countries have registered to participate in the prize. And in recognition that not every contestant starts from a level playing field, we’ve handed out over £250,000 in seed funding to promising teams - including one round focused specifically on the impressive, but undercapitalised biotechnology sector in India.

This is important. It’s not just a question of being fair; it’s making sure that all the teams who can bring a meaningful contribution are able to take part.

We’ve seen this in a number of our prizes. In the Dynamic Demand Challenge, a prize we ran to help make electricity use more eco-friendly, two of the finalists have gone on to great commercial success: Upside Energy and Powervault both unlocked significant new investments following being shortlisted.

We think there are key needs of the 21st century which challenge prizes can solve. These are: feeding the planet, improving health through access to surgery, and using access to data to tackle inequality, rather than allowing it to divide us.

We want to use these prizes to solve these problems faster and better - making the most of talent, ideas and motivations out there, wherever they may be.

We will be discussing how we can tackle some of today's biggest global challenges at the Challenges of Our Era Summit from 6-7 March. Follow the debate using the hashtag #OurEra2018.


Tris Dyson

Tris Dyson

Tris Dyson

Executive Director, Challenge Works


Tris has led Challenge Works from its origins as a Nesta experiment to being a global hub for expertise and insight on challenge prizes.

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