The stories in this collection (one of three about Discovering What Works) provide an overview of how prizes can be effective in encouraging social innovation and change, as well as a few very different examples of prizes as a social change strategy. Begin this collection by listening to the BBC Podcast Problem-Solving Prizes, where you'll learn that when the world needed something new—say, a way to calculate longitude at sea—a prize was offered. Then dive into the other stories to learn how prizes are back and are pushing innovation like never before.
Read Innovation for the People, By the People, by David Bornstein to learn about how the Obama administration initiated the use of prizes to mobilize new ideas from outside of the governmental sector. In her follow-up piece, Prizes with an Eye Toward the Future, Tina Rosenberg takes a wider view to consider the benefits of using prizes as a mechanism to encourage cross-sector innovation.
We also see how prizes can be used to promote individual growth and positive behavioral change. In the battle against addiction, rewards are a vital component of a strategy known as contingency management.
NOTE: Not everyone agrees that prizes are a cost effective and efficient method for cultivating social change. This collection includes a link to an article where the author, a highly esteemed leader in the field of social change, argues that some competitions and prizes are a waste of time and money.
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- According to the piece by Tina Rosenberg, how has the use of prizes in response to social innovation changed over the past century? What factors account for the changes in this trend?
- Why might prizes be an effective way of finding solutions? How might they be better than traditional ways of attempting to solve big social problems? How might they be worse?
- Would prizes be effective in coming up with a solution to entrenched problems like prejudice, hatred, and “us versus them” thinking? Why or why not? How might this work?
- Would prizes be effective in solving “Tragedy of the Commons” problems, like environmental destruction, where people have an individual interest in doing things that would benefit them personally, but that would be detrimental to the greater good? For example, people in wealthy countries often use far more resources than people in more impoverished nations. A lifestyle in which people travel on planes frequently, for example, leads to much greater carbon emissions. But the results of environmental destruction tend to hurt poor people more. Could a prize help to solve this? How?
- Do some types of social problems seem more appropriately matched contests or prizes than others? Using examples from the readings, what makes these prizes effective? Consider, for example, the idea of contingency management. What is it? What makes it effective?
- Consider these articles in the context of Starr's argument in the SSIR. After reading his article and the solutions journalism stories, do you agree with him?
- Journalism is a collaborative practice: reporters are writing for their community, but they also depend on community members as sources for information. Indeed, the very purpose of journalism, according to the American Press Institute, is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. With that in mind, SJN wants to help connect news readers and journalists. Beside the name of the journalist on any of our story pages or the results page of the Solutions Story Tracker, you’ll find a Twitter icon that will link you directly to the journalists profile. Tweet at them with questions or compliments about their piece - you might be surprised by how much writers want to engage with their audiences! Don’t forget to tag us too (@soljourno) and use the hashtag #journalistintheclassroom if you are reading as part of an academic assignment.
- As Rosenberg discusses, until the late 1800s, many prizes were given as an incentive to invent or achieve social change (she lists canned goods, fire extinguishers and several other inventions that were developed in response to a specific prize challenge). Toward the end of the 19th century, with the rise of large-scale government and industry-sponsored research labs, many projects occurred behind closed doors. As a result, a majority of prize money went to recognize achievements after they were implemented (think of the Nobel prize, which rewards past achievements as opposed to setting and encouraging new developments). Rosenberg argues that a rise in philanthropic funding along with new modes for collaboration opened up by the tech sector and communications technology has given a boost to prize competitions.
- Prizes encourage new approaches and garner attention from new actors and players, often in ways that are unexpected. Rosenberg, in particular, argues that prizes are a very cost-effective way of encouraging innovation. Rosenberg also offers several ways in which the prize system is more efficient than the patent system, which encourages monopolization of ideas and products.
- Answers will vary—encourage students to explore the Story Tracker for ideas about how prizes might be applied to existing social questions.
- The prize for integrity, discussed by Roxanne Patel Shepelavy in her piece for the Philadelphia Citizen, could serve as a model for other kinds of prizes, such as ones for environmentally sound behavior or policies. Encourage your students to consider whether the application of this kind of prize or recognition could achieve lasting change—why or why not?
- Answers will vary—but the prizes discussed range from those that encourage technical innovation (as in the piece Eleanor Goldberg about solar-powered desalination), to those that encourage prizes for individual behavior change (Scott Greenstone’s piece on contingency management for those suffering from addiction). Contingency management, in particular, focuses on using positive rewards to encourage lasting behavioral change. Note that these ideas can be combined in novel ways.
- Starr argues, among other things, that prizes focus too much on innovation and not enough on implementation. Do your students agree? Can the ideas in this collection be easily scaled? What are some challenges?