Incentivize On The Prize

(July 2014)

Philadelphia can once again be a place that produces ideas that change the world.  We can make it happen with an incentive prize.

Philadelphia was once the city of “firsts,” teeming with the energy and entrepreneurialism that established the nation's first hospital, first art museum, and first zoo (among others).  Philadelphia once confidently saw itself as a city that rivaled any metropolis on the globe and built its City Hall to be the tallest building in the world.  But Philadelphia's atty-tude has long since become content to lag and follow other places.  We have become a city excited to open the world's 98th Hard Rock Cafe; a city content to see four dozen municipalities establish a bike-share program before ours; and a city that constantly tests new ideas by questioning, "where else has this worked?" instead of boldly stating, "we will show the world the way."  That should change -- and it can change.

Philadelphia can be a first mover and an early adopter.  We have the brain power, energy, and moxie to rival any city, but we need a spark to both unleash our civic capacity and focus it.

I propose that Philadelphia establish an incentive prize to inspire the next major Philadelphia "first" and the next world-leading Philadelphia creation.

Prize Fight

Incentive prizes have facilitated and encouraged creative thinking and great advancements for centuries.  The British Parliament offered the Longitude Prize of £20,000 in 1714 for the discovery of a way for ships at sea to determine their longitude.  A watchmaker won the prize by inventing a marine chronometer, which transformed ocean transportation.  Napoleon offered a 12,000-Francs prize a century later for an invention to preserve food for his well-traveled army.  A bonbon seller won the prize with his method of sealing food in airtight containers after heating, paving the way for what we now know as the canned-food industry.  In 1919, hotelier Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 to the first aviator to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.  Charles Lindbergh famously claimed the prize and the era of long-distance air travel took off with his Spirit of St. Louis.  More recently, the Ansari X Prize offered $10 million to the creator of the first craft to take passengers into to space, return them safely, and then do it again a few days later. The winning technology is being used today by Virgin Galactic, which is building a Spaceport for commercial space tourists in New Mexico.

But incentive prizes do not only reward victors, and not only prize claimers benefit from the competition.  In the end, a lucrative bounty can not only generate a winning solution, but also jumpstart investments by all competitors that dwarf the amount of the prize itself.  The knowledge gained by all participants in pursuit of the prize then creates important advances beyond those put forth by the winner.

Eyes on the Prize

In Philadelphia, we could create two incentive-prize programs funded, perhaps, through a partnership involving local government, corporate, academic, and philanthropic entities to establish a $1 million prize for the next significant "Philadelphia First" and next "World’s Greatest In Philadelphia."  The prizes could be awarded through a juried and time-certain process to create an exciting race to the finish that will result in something (an idea, institution, or edifice) that shape the future of our city -- and our world.

Philadelphia used to be a city where new ideas were launched that then spread to the rest of the world, where we felt that we were worthy of a seat of municipal government that should be the world’s tallest building.  It is time to inspire -- and incentivize -- that kind of bold thinking again.