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Incentives for Innovation

When I think about concepts for our challenge, I immediately start asking myself: what does a company get out of innovating for world benefit?

Photo of Ashley Jablow
19 10

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This concept is part thought-starter and part idea - and I could use your help thinking through it more fully.


This morning I listened to a podcast on Freakonomics called the Cobra Effect. Basically, it looked at the scenario of offering rewards or bounties for certain behaviors. In one example, they shared a story of a cobra overpopulation problem in Delhi. To reign in this booming population, the government enlisted the help of locals to capture and kill the cobras and offered a financial reward for doing so. Citizens jumped on board, bringing cobra skins en masse to the government as proof of their kills, and collecting their rewards. For a while the officials thought things were working – but with time they realized that no matter how many cobra skins were turned in, the cobra population wasn't decreasing.

They soon discovered something interesting: just outside city limits, enterprising citizens had actually set up cobra farms! They were raising and then killing the cobras, only to turn in their skins and collect their reward. When the government figured this out and ended this reward program, the citizens were no longer motivated to keep their cobra farms. So what did they do? They released the cobras – thus increasing the overall cobra population by multiple orders of magnitude! Hence, the Cobra Effect.

This was just one story from multiple examples shared in the podcast, but it left a clear impression on me: incentives matter.


So, when thinking about concepts for this challenge, I started asking myself: what would incentivize a company to innovate in ways that not only are good for their business but that also lead to world benefit?

We know that the Fowler Center (our challenge sponsor) is exploring creating a Nobel-like prize to recognize these world changing innovations. Now, inherent in the word 'prize' is the idea that there is prize money offered. What would motivate a company to care about this prize, and specifically the prize money? 

How could we align incentives so that companies are 1) motivated to innovate for world benefit in the first place (thus making them eligible to win this prize) and 2) use the winning prize money to continue innovating in this way?

What if the prize money wasn't just cash – but something more valuable to a company? Could the business behind the winning innovation for world benefit receive:

  • State or Federal tax cuts?
  • Fast-tracked patents for their winning innovations?
  • An exclusive invitation to join some sort of innovation incubator or special advisory counsel?
  • What else?

What 'prize' might be so valuable to a company that it would be incentivized to reorient its entire innovation strategy to consider world benefit, in addition to profits?

Again, this idea is a bit of a thought-starter, but I'd love to hear what you think. I'll keep iterating this concept as I get community feedback.


Join the conversation:

Photo of An Old Friend

I know this challenge is over, but I couldn't resist:

Hopefully history won't repeat itself :)

Photo of Ashley Jablow

Ha! I've actually heard about these python issues in Florida - crazy! Glad to see the challenge is still on your mind Kirk :)

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