About the ‘Uplift Prize’

Uplifting 1 Billion People by 2020

Uplift PrizeHuman inequality is a reality of our world, and will not change in the foreseeable future.  But why should the ‘floor’ of the human condition be so low?  If hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid and private charity have been distributed in the last 25 years, why do 2 billion people still lack the very basic human necessities?

The problem with traditional forms of charity are not just the known problems (administrative overhead, corruption, wastage), but also the principles of how charity is presently done.  The entire process is premised on the assumption of a zero-sum redistribution, with no concept of incentives or self-sufficiency at all.  From my experiences in India, I have seen that even the most destitute person, once they receive enough food for the next week, very quickly defaults into a mentality of not needing to take any further action for the remainder of the week.  Needless to say, the traditional model of charity is broken, and is no longer helping the intended recipients, who have been trained to anticipate handouts.

Suppose, instead, we teach them how to fish.

The X Prize Foundation has demonstrated that innovation prizes can greatly accelerate the rate of advancement in fields that the X Prize stimulates, which to date include private spaceflight and electric cars.  So why not use the principle of incentives being the catalyst of superlative human effort to create a couple of much smaller prizes that address the stubborn persistence of global poverty?  With this goal in mind, I thought about how to create a solution with the most asymmetrical impact.

It always troubled me that 2 billion humans, or 30% of humanity, do not have access to clean drinking water.  This includes 40% of the world’s children under the age of 15.  This causes millions of deaths from dehydration, as well as from cholera and dysentery from being forced to drink unclean water.  More than even food and clothing, a lack of regular drinking water inflicts misery and a loss of productivity.

Yet, this basic problem still persists, despite billions in aid to create irrigation systems.  So the goal has to be to put the means of water purification in the hands of the final recipient, thereby bypassing all corruption and dependence on infrastructure.

Instead, what if we could use the latest purification technologies, such as nanomembranes, and construct an innovation prize that would be awarded to the first inventor who could create a device for under $1.25 that could either filter or condense enough water per day for one person, without being dependent on any infrastructure, like an electrical grid?  If we set the prize at a modest $50,000, all sorts of grassroots innovation might be inspired to produce such a device by 2015.

Now, for the next obstacle, I think we can become more ambitious.  After people have water, they may want to pursue slightly higher goals.

An industrial infrastructure to provide the products and employment that elevates average people in emerging economies to an intermediate level of human development can take decades to build.  With the success of China in assimilating so much of the global economy’s low-cost manufacturing output, many of the world’s poorest nations have no opportunity to construct and secure their own manufacturing sector.  Hence, this stage of human upliftment has become a chasm that many nations are finding difficult to cross.

But if manufacturing itself can be brought to the scale that cottage industries operate in, then the scale of Chinese mass-manufacturing is no longer a requirement to be cost competitive.  A technology that removes the fixed costs and volume necessities associated with heavy manufacturing can reduce the barriers to entry for the manufacturing of many commodity goods, and drive costs to unprecedented lows.

The technology to print solid objects (much like an inkjet printer, except that thousands of layers are successively printed until a solid object is complete) is becoming reliable and affordable.  Even more ambitious, there is a community of inventors that is working on producing a 3D-printer that prints copies of its own parts – a self-replicating printer.  This initiative is known as the RepRap project, and has an open-source policy on technologies invented by members of the community.  Many of these inventors pursue this as a hobby, and thus hesitate to spend a few hundred dollars that might advance the project.

I believe that this sort of technology could cause a massive paradigm shift in how low-cost manufacturing is done.  A machine that could print just about any basic solid object of daily utility, and even print electrical circuits, is useful enough.  If the same machine can also print 90% of the parts needed to build a copy of itself, then mass-distribution of this ‘personal manufacturing’ machine would be extremely easy.   Parts for the water liberation prize above could also be printed by the machine, enabling the cost targets to be reached.

As an added bonus, the question of finding a suitable material for use in the personal manufacturing machine presents to opportunity to solve yet another pressing problem.  Millions of tons of waste plastic currently reside in landfills, or are floating in the oceans.  Some of these plastics (such as HDPE and polypropylene) are produced in volumes exceeding 30 million tons a year, and ultimately find their way into waste.  But remarkably, they can be recycled into a suitable material for 3D Printing, addressing a major ecological problem.

Thus, a second innovation prize will be awarded to the innovator who can produce a self-replicating 3D-printer, and make use of a printing material that is below a certain cost threshold, by 2015.  The prize seeks to encourage collaboration and sharing between various participants in the RepRap project.  The prize of up to $100,000 will consist of an Interim prize of $20,000 awarded at the end of 2012 (later revised to mid-2013), and a Grand prize of up to $80,000 awarded at the end of 2015.

After the Water and Personal Manufacturing prizes, there will be others created to target specific poverty-reduction in the most asymmetrical way possible.

I intend to demonstrate that an ordinary person like myself who is not even quitting my day job, can partner with a small organization like Humanity+, seek expert input, and construct a carefully considered prize that channels grassroots innovation that is already being done, towards the focused goal of uplifting 1 billion people out of poverty by 2020, all for a very tiny sum of $1,000,000.   As we have no employees, offices, or expense accounts, 95-100% of your donation goes directly to the prize balance (the only cost is the Indiegogo fee, if you donated through Indiegogo), in contrast to many traditional charities where only 30-60% of any donation reaches the final destination.

Join me in this endeavor to prove that with the right vision and incentives, a great deal can be accomplished in an entirely grassroots effort when the incentives are structured properly for the right set of future technologies.  Join me in demonstrating how much can be achieved with how little.

Indeed, this sum is quite literally about one millionth of the amount of aid that has already been granted towards poverty relief over the past quarter-century, yet we now have technologies that did not exist just a few years ago, and an incentive model has hardly been tried in this sphere.  It is time to address these humanitarian challenges once and for all, and end them within a decade

4 thoughts on “About the ‘Uplift Prize’

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