Stimulating innovation for good

From almost the moment they take off, things start to go wrong… The exhaust pipe falls off and the 20-litre V12 engine begins to blast the two airmen with a deafening roar. 

The generator fails, taking with it both the intercom and the heating. Then, a few hours later, they get caught in fog, lose their bearings and nearly crash into the ocean.

And then, finally, just under sixteen gruelling hours later, they crash for real: landing on what they thought was a field, but turns out to be a bog, their undercarriage crumpling and the nose of their aircraft hitting the ground with a thud; the tailplane left pointing up in the air. An undignified end to a flight that had come so close to failure so many times. 

And yet, that selfsame flight is also one of the crowning triumphs of early aviation: flying from a field in Canada’s Newfoundland to a bog in rural Ireland, the First World War surplus bomber has just made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. It’s June 15, 1919 – a century ago.

The story is one widely told, though one overshadowed by Charles Lindbergh’s first solo transatlantic flight, which wouldn’t come until eight years later. 

Lindbergh lived to be a controversial celebrity, while John Alcock died in a plane crash just a few months after piloting this record-breaking flight. But as a British aviation first, and one celebrating its centenary this month, one that maybe merits more attention than it gets.

For, Alcock and his navigator, Arthur Brown – and for the technical team of the Vickers aircraft company and Rolls-Royce that supported them – this pioneering flight wasn’t just a matter of showing they had the right stuff, it was a matter of getting rich!

Six years earlier, the Daily Mail had offered a reward of £10,000 for the first aircrew to cross the Atlantic by air in less than 72 hours, one of a large number of aviation challenges that  the newspaper set in the early 20th century. Four teams were competing by the spring of 1919. 

In June 1919, Alcock and Brown would pick up the prize from the then Minister of Aviation – a big fan of science and innovation – one Winston Churchill.

REDISCOVERING THE POWER OF PRIZES

The Daily Mail Prize isn’t simply a historic footnote or a curious anniversary to celebrate. Prizes were once a widespread way of pushing technological frontiers – from the Longitude Prize that helped the British Empire navigate the seas, to Napoleon’s Food Preservation Prize that introduced the world to canned foods. 

But then, they went out of fashion. 

The age of prizes rewarding the plucky underdog, of ingenuity winning out over institutional heft, was over. Instead, big research grants flowed to worthy research institutes – reflecting, yes, the scale and complexity of the problems facing developed economies, and how many of them need vast teams and huge resources… but perhaps in there, too, a wish to play it safe.

And yet, in the past 15 years or so, prizes have begun to make a welcome return to the mainstream. Starting with the Ansari X Prize, awarded in 2004 for the first private spacecraft to send a human above Earth’s atmosphere, governments and foundations have gradually rediscovered how open competition can sometimes be the best solution to solving the biggest challenges.

Where there’s a clear goal, but it’s not clear who is best placed to reach it or which approach is best (and where the gold and the glory might attract new attention and speed up problem solving), prizes have found their niche.

They’ve become a major feature of the US government’s technology policy – running almost 1000 technology and innovation prizes and handing out $250m since it launched its Challenge.gov initiative in 2010. In Europe, the EU has put up tens of millions of euros to solve problems ranging from cleaner diesel engines to cheaper space launchers as part of its Horizon 2020 programme. 

And the UK is at the forefront, including a £10m prize to tackle antibiotic resistance, launched to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Prize in 2014. British prizes have covered a diverse spectrum of challenges, from creating a more competitive banking system for small businesses, to the big aviation challenge of our times, using drones for social good. Prizes promote innovation and support entrepreneurs to develop the very best ideas and make them a reality so that they benefit us all.

With the anniversary of Alcock and Brown’s prize-winning flight, and the revolution in aviation it helped launch in mind, what challenge of the 21st century should we set as the next grand prize?

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