On a picture-perfect afternoon at a resort in Ranchos Palos Verdes, a wealthy Los Angeles suburb, I joined up with three business executives to come up with a tough question for others to solve.
We brainstormed this challenge: Devise a plan to generate half the food supply for an entire small city of 500,000 people within a 50-mile radius. Oh, and make sure the methodology could be transferred to most other similarly sized cities around the world.
Audacious? Of course. Doable? Over the course of several years, possibly.
This was our idea for the next XPrize, a series of public competitions that asks entrants to come up with "radical breakthroughs" that solve some of humanity's biggest challenges, in exchange for multi-million dollar prizes. Past and current XPrizes have included challenges to land a private craft on the moon, build a 100-mile-per-gallon car, and create a real tricorder. Our Self-Sustaining Food Supply XPrize, as we called it, was one of dozens thought up by some of the smartest and most powerful people in the world at last weekend's XPrize Visioneering gathering—a weekend of learning from experts and designing challenges aimed at tackling the major problems that humanity faces today.
Peter Diamandis, the charming techno-optimist behind the nearly 20-year-old XPrize Foundation, reminded us several times throughout the weekend that past XPrizes were influenced by the Visioneering event. But this year, the stakes were higher than ever: The idea from the winning team would go straight into the prize pipeline, get its own event for further refinement, and after proper vetting, possibly become the next big XPrize.
I wanted to win.
Diamandis, a physician and engineer who once worked in the space technology industry, launched the X Prize Foundation after reading The Spirit of St. Louis, an autobiography by Charles Lindbergh detailing the explorer's solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. It was a feat inspired by a prize challenge: the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first person to complete a solo trans-Atlantic flight between New York and Paris. In winning the prize, Lindbergh helped familiarize the previously alien world of aviation to a generation of people, and brought us closer to today's aviation industry. Diamandis was inspired to create his own incentive prizes, starting with spaceflight.
A decade ago, the $10 million Ansari XPrize—the first prize launched by the foundation—asked teams to build a private spaceship that could carry three people 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface twice in a two week period. Some 26 teams entered, spending over $100 million in total. In 2001, SpaceShipOne, designed by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, won the competition. Ultimately, the spaceship technology was licensed by Richard Branson to create the foundation for Virgin Galactic—a move that, according to XPrize lore, opened up the larger private spaceflight industry.
Today, the XPrize Foundation has awarded prizes for three challenges, including the Ansari XPrize and a prize to develop a better method of oil spill cleanup. The four active prizes include the Tricorder XPrize for a device that can diagnose patients at least as well as a physician, and the Google Lunar XPrize, for teams to create a rover that can launch and land on the moon and then transmit video back down to Earth. A number of prizes are in the pipeline, addressing everything from literacy to organ cryopreservation.
After a brief session on prize design, the Visioneering weekend participants were sent off to brainstorm, divided into sections based on interest. My section on day one, held in an open-air half-dome outfitted with couches, pillows, and an especially soft shaggy rug, focused on the challenges facing cities. Paul Romer, the New York University economist who garnered attention recently for his ideas on charter cities, led a whirlwind 20-minute talk on how humanity can prepare for the 5 billion new urban residents who will emerge in the next 100 years.
Romer pointed out that we have the power to shape the many new cities that will pop up, but there is a limited window of time to do so. "In 100 years, it will be over. Humans will live forever with the cities we leave them," is the somber thought he left us to chew on.
After dividing into small groups and writing themes on post-it notes, it was time to hone in on prize ideas. We regrouped and split up into teams based on interest.
My four-person team—Ken Neumann, CEO of Greenscape Ventures; Guy Wolloart, chief technical and innovation officer at The Coca-Cola Company; Rodrigo Veloso, founder of O.N.E. Coconut Water; and myself, an editor and writer for Co.Exist— initially wanted to create a prize related to water, energy, food, and economic self-sufficiency in cities. We tossed around ideas for at least 20 minutes (the team briefly lost its way at one point when a member suggested that we try to spur the creation of an Ayn Rand-ian libertarian utopia) before deciding that we needed to hone in one topic area and come up with a measurable, ultra-focused challenge.
Wolloart's pitch in front of the larger cities group was good enough to gather the votes needed to make it to the next round of pitching, this time in front of all the weekend's participants.
But first, we had one more day of visioneering. This time, I chose to participate in a climate change session led by PopTech executive director Andrew Zolli. After once again brainstorming themes, I joined another four-person team that brainstormed an idea fairly quickly for the $5 million Farmer's Almanac 2.0 XPrize: a challenge to come up with a system that pulls in climate data in real time, aggregates it, provides clear and actionable information for individuals and businesses, and distributes the data through existing channels (like real estate websites, for example). Once again, we made it to the next round.
My luck went downhill from there. Neither of my teams won enough votes to make it to the final round—really, how could we compete with pitches from personalities like newscaster Pat Kiernan and actress Patricia Arquette?
The final five ideas, selected via text message voting, included a prize for getting trace molecules of medication out of the water supply (pitched by Arquette and earthquake scientist Dr. Lucy Jones), a prize for building a prototype of a long-lasting home that could be constructed for under $1,000 in less than 24 hours, and a prize for reproducing substantive energy generation from an entirely new energy source (like cold fusion or zero-point energy) twice in two weeks.
After participating in a dramatic voting system that involved 3-D printed poker chips and glowsticks, the winner was declared: The Forbidden Energy XPrize for generating energy from an entirely new source, like cold fusion or zero point energy.
Cold fusion is perhaps more fun to think about than existing alternative energy solutions. But in my opinion, it seems more important in the energy space to come up with exponentially better battery technologies that can store energy from existing sources like solar and wind (in fact, XPrize is thinking about a challenge for building a revolutionary battery). But this was a popularity contest, and the sexiest-sounding idea took home the trophy.
There was a sense permeating the Visioneering weekend that technology can solve everything—an ideology disparagingly referred to by writer Evgeny Morozov as "solutionism." It can't solve everything, of course. Who cares if you build a better affordable home or system for local food production if the technology can't be evenly distributed? And who says we're even hunting for solutions to the right problems?
Nonetheless, technology is a major driver of change in human society. And if even a small percentage of the world's big problems can be solved by people willing to spend their time and money thinking up challenges and then joining together to find solutions, all of XPrize's efforts will be worth it. Plus, visioneering is a whole lot of fun.