Xprize highlights ocean health

This month Xprize announced a new series of prizes on ocean health. They’ve awarded one already, for finding a better way of cleaning up oil spills. A current prize offer focuses on measuring ocean acidification, and there will be three more after this one.

“As a result of human activity, the ocean is overfished, polluted, and exploited; a problem because it supports all life on Earth” they say in the press release. “XPRIZE is in a unique position to galvanize a community of innovators, scientists, government officials, business leaders, philanthropists and ocean advocates in service of a bold vision – to turn our oceans away from their current state of crisis and towards real breakthroughs to ensure that the world’s oceans become healthy, valued, and understood.”

It’s great to see issues like ocean acidification highlighted in this way. Xprize have a proven track record of mobilising research attention on their topics, by offering a prize that can’t be ignored. They incentivise new research in ways that are newsworthy and that get people excited – as McKinsey put it, “well designed prizes carry a strong element of theater”. Their analysis suggests big prizes like these work, and that the benefits extend well beyond the boost to the actual winner. They’re an innovative form of philanthropic activism.

The flipside is that it really matters who is judging the award, and the criteria need to be specific and well enforced. Last year I wrote about a Gates Foundation competition to re-invent the toilet that went wrong, in my view, by producing a very clever winning design that was entirely impractical for 95% of the world. What you shoot for matters too. Xprize are most famous for their first offering, which kick-started the private space travel industry. Impressive, but one does wonder what the world has really gained. This environmental challenge, and a global literacy prize that is being developed, seem much more worthwhile.

When it does work, the results can be impressive. The first oceans Xprize was in the wake of Deepwater Horizon and challenged engineers to come up with a better way of removing oil from the sea. The winning team managed to remove three times more oil from the water than the industry’s best performance, so it really raised the bar. Here’s a somewhat dramatic video about it, and here’s hoping the much-overlooked issue of ocean acidification gets a similar level of attention.

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