Dear ARIA: Three tips for creating more ambitious challenge prizes

22 Mar 2021

After years of rumour and speculation, we now know for sure: Britain will get a new moonshots agency, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced in February that the new organisation will embrace failure and invest in high risk, high reward projects.

In the ARIA policy statement, published 19 March 2021, they propose challenge prizes as a way of embracing these projects: “An emerging body of academic and anecdotal evidence suggests inducement prizes can provide significant returns and galvanise the research communities. Competitions prove popular from those not usually seeking government grants.” 

But being ambitious is hard. 

It’s the easiest thing in the world to channel funding into the problems society faces in the here and now. But thinking about the future is important too.

It’s why strategic foresight exists – to think about trends, possibilities and risks, and to guide decision making by governments and corporations. It’s why we have economic forecasts, to inform how we allocate funding and apportion costs. 

It’s why humans make plans.

Thinking about the future isn’t about knowing what’s coming. When we make plans, we shape decisions about what we do now, and about the impact we hope to have.

So, as some friendly advice to the team launching ARIA here are three key points in challenge prize research and design when we take extra care to be ambitious in our goals.

When we choose a topic

Nesta Challenges’ Longitude Prize focuses on a strategic and future-focused theme: the rising tide of antimicrobial resistance. This is already a problem today, with growing awareness of “superbugs” that don’t respond to antibiotic treatments. 

But the real risk – the focus of the prize and the reason we chose to work on it – is in the future. 

The rate at which we are discovering new antibiotics has fallen behind the rate at which existing ones are losing their effectiveness. And so by choosing the fight against antimicrobial resistance as the topic for the Longitude Prize, we were making a clear pitch for the future we want to enable, one in which precious antibiotic drugs are preserved as long as possible.

There can be lots of different ways in which a topic is strategic. 

It can, like antibiotic resistance, be a response to a long-term trend. It can be about exploiting an opportunity or building on a strength. It can be about responding to a threat. 

The important thing is to step outside the immediate problems we face now.

In defining the problem

One challenge prize concept which we have recently developed and which we are speaking to potential funders about developing further is around transmitting power in space

It’s a strategic topic like antimicrobial resistance – generating solar power in space and beaming it down to the surface could be a contributor to eliminating fossil fuelled electricity production. But as well as having a strategic topic, we need to define a goal that focuses on a well-defined problem.

Challenge prizes need a clear goal because they aren’t just about supporting activity in a sector or accelerating work around a topic, they are about handing out large rewards in return for progress towards defined outcomes. You need to be clear about the objective so the judges can be objective in their decision.

Our proposed space power prize focuses on a specific barrier. This is that we will never develop large-scale space power stations that beam their energy down to Earth if we don’t first manage to solve the key technical problem in space – around accurately targeting energy beams.

Engagement with experts is key to defining problems well. But you can’t just ask “what are your problems?” – the problems you want to solve often aren’t the problems we face now, but the problems we will face on the path to the future we want.

There are a whole range of techniques that can help here – from scenarios to speculative design that can help. One we’ve used quite often is Three Horizons.

The innovation business is full of people pushing different methodologies. Some are super sharp. Some are hucksters. We’ve found that when it comes to defining challenges, agonising over the theoretical frameworks isn’t needed: they aren’t rocket science, they are techniques, tools that help us – and the experts we work with – snap out of our daily experience and imagine instead where we’d like to get to and how we’re going to get there.

In designing the challenge

We are currently working on a prize to design digital tech that enables people with dementia to live independently for longer. 

Assistive tech is a bit behind the curve, so part of this is in understanding what’s doable based on what the state of the art is in other fields. But it’s also about thinking: what is possible in a few years’ time, with some hard work? How much progress can we ask teams to make towards the problem we’ve set?

And how can we design our prize – the timescales, but also the success criteria, the level of ambition in our challenge statement, the proposed testing and innovator support – to get us as far as possible?

When we design a challenge prize, we discuss our draft challenge design extensively with potential innovators who might enter. We need their feedback on whether our plans make sense. 

For the dementia prize project, we convened a workshop on Zoom with innovators from around the world to test our thinking in January. But it’s remarkable that even in the company of tech entrepreneurs, it was so easy to default to thinking about the near term – what they could do in 3, 6, 12 months. 

They were smart people, and I’m sure they could do amazing things in that time. But what we’re interested in is what they could achieve if they had the luxury of several years to create breakthroughs, rather than just incremental improvements, in their technology.

We’re still working up this prize design, so watch this space – but part of being ambitious in this case has been about taking a calculated risk; a leap of faith. 

And, based on everything we’ve learned throughout our months of work – in choosing a topic, picking a problem, defining a challenge – having the imagination and courage to set an ambitious goal.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the future hasn’t happened yet. 

You’ll only shape it if you try.

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