Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Financing climate innovation: WRI and the bounty system

Last week the World Resources Institute (WRI) posted a challenge on Innocentive, the online innovation reward website, offering cash prizes to individuals for solutions to climate change adaption issues. There is a total of $10 000 up for grabs if you can articulate a clear and actionable vision for climate change communication strategies in vulnerable communities.

WRI’s approach adds to the broader debate on how you finance climate innovation. There’s much discussion concerning how to deploy money into existing technologies and ideas, but how do you best put money into creating new technologies and ideas?

In issues of strategic concern, governments have frequently used grants, for example, to support universities and research institutes to develop new ideas and technologies. That has the advantage of giving innovators space to develop ideas without an immediate need for commercialisation. On the other hand, government grants risk being too prescriptive: What if the government chooses the wrong initiatives to support, and sinks money into non-starting technologies and concepts?

An alternative strategy has been to encourage private sector involvement in research and development through establishing intellectual property rights regimes and legal patents. These do protect innovators that sink time and resources into R&D from the prospect of others freeriding on the products of that labour. On the other hand, they only do so at the cost of creating artificial monopolies, which can have very detrimental side-effects when it comes to crucial issues of welfare, for example, in pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps the most underused method for promoting innovation though, has been the bounty system – offering prizes to induce people to solve something. Back in the 1700s, the bounty system was used to induce the creation of the first accurate maritime clock that revolutionised ocean navigation. Prizes needn’t be purely monetary though: Academic prizes like the Nobel Prizes have done much to inspire much cutting edge research, providing innovators with goals to work towards.

Innocentive is an interesting example of the bounty system. Private companies and institutions post challenges, and offer to pay individuals who can solve the challenges. A lot of the challenges to date have been scientific – how to synthesise a chemical component, or how to make fizzy drinks that don’t go flat. It’s a quick and efficient way to hone in on people who are carrying necessary skills and to harness those skills without having to directly hire them. They can be anywhere in the world, but many come from developing countries, providing a potential source of income for bright PhD students.

The obvious shortcoming of any bounty system is that if a problem seems too complex, individuals might not feel it worthwhile to put in time and effort. Many people simply do not have the luxury to commit large energy to something without any guarantee of being paid, so the bounty system probably works best for relatively less complex puzzles.

The World Resources Institute puzzle seems complex enough, but seeks ideas rather than finished technologies. They want bright ideas for “communication platforms that will connect information about local community needs to public and private sector organizations that can provide solutions and support”, so as to improve community resilience in the face of changes brought on by global warming.

At the time of writing, there were about 200 people working on the challenge, with a deadline in June. That theoretically gives you a roughly 0.5% chance of winning, assuming all were equal in their abilities. If you think you have what it takes to turn the odds in your favour, why not join up? Even if you don’t win, it gives you a chance to develop and professionalise your ideas. And, yeah, I get to take a small commission from anybody who wins after reading this blog post.


  1. Have nobel prizes inspired cutting edge research? I don't think so; I think sometimes people do say to themselves something like - wow if this comes good it might even get a nobel prize - but really that's shorthand for It will be a real breakthrough. The prize doesn't do it, and anyway it tends to arrive 10-20years after the discovery.

  2. Undoubtedly academic prizes do not by themselves inspire research, but they provide an alternative form of reward for thinking outside the box, especially for technologies that are more speculative and not yet strictly commercial, like nuclear fusion.