The age of austerity could spell a comeback for cash rewards to stimulate innovation along the lines of the 18th century Longitude Prize.
That’s the view of the Financial Times journalist Tim Harford, who was speaking ahead of a BDO Transitions event at the ICC on June 15 which he is due to address.
Mr Harford, author of the FT’s Dear Economist problem page and best-selling book The Undercover Economist, said as cash-strapped governments find it harder to fund research, setting prize money could encourage people to work on technological challenges in areas such as medicine, alternative energy and transport.
One of the best-known examples of an innovation prize was the Longitude Prize in 1714 which offered a substantial reward to anyone who could accurately plot how far east or west of the Greenwich Meridian a ship was, prompting John Harrison to create a clock of unprecedented accuracy which could be used at sea.
Mr Harford believes the challenges facing the modern world could bring similar thinkers out of the woodwork.
He said: “When you have got no money, you start thinking really hard about what works.
“One of the ideas that is really catching on is the idea of an innovation prize where you say ‘if you can invent the thing then we will give you money.’
“The great thing about these prizes is you don’t pay the money until this innovation comes about.”
An example of a modern-day innovation prize is the $10 million reward up for grabs for the first team to successfully sequence 100 human genomes in ten days.
J. Craig Venter, who recently made global headlines when he claimed to have created the world’s first synthetic lifeform, is one of the executive directors of the prize.
Mr Harford said the idea of innovation prizes could appeal to the new fiscally-challenged coalition government, as well as chiming with its Big Society rhetoric about getting more people involved in addressing society’s challenges.
“It might be quite tempting – the Government could make a big fuss about funding innovation without spending any money,” he said.
Although there has been plenty of innovation around digital technology over the past few years, other sectors – such as aviation and other forms of transport – seem to be lagging behind.
Mr Harford said: “When we think about innovation, what we tend to think of is computers, mobile phones, Facebook, Twitter and iPhones – we don’t think about new aeroplanes or nuclear fusion.
“We still fly in Boeing 747s that were designed in 1968 before the moon landing.
“Business travellers recently voted on the leading travel innovation of the last ten years and they concluded that it was online check in.
“I remember in 1980 reading Dan Dare and by 2000 we were supposed to have jetpacks.
“By 2010 we are supposed to be living in the future and all we’ve got is online check in.”
As there are few cost barriers for digital experts to dream up new applications, it’s understandable that innovation happens more rapidly in this field.
But Mr Harford believes it is also the sheer number of people who are tinkering around with online technology that has helped bring about digital innovation.
“One of the things that helps innovation is diversity – a lot of different people trying different things” he said.
“You don’t put everyone together in a Manhattan Project-style lab. It all comes out of left field.
“The sectors that have done really well are digital sectors because it’s cheap and anybody can do it in their backyard.
“When you look at an HIV vaccine or solar panels you can use as wallpaper, these are really expensive innovations and we don’t have the diversity of firms working on them. It’s not just the funding, it’s also about how you provide that funding in a diverse structure where you are not shutting ideas out.”
* Leading business and industry figures will debate the Transitions report at a special event at the ICC on June 15 where Tim Farford will give a keynote address as well as answering questions alongside an invited panel. The evening will be hosted by Birmingham Post editor Alun Thorne.
* Details on the report can be found at www.freedomtothink.biz