How grand challenges can spark scientific innovation

Humans are inherently competitive. This characteristic has manifested itself throughout history in many forms of global tournaments and championships – from the Ancient Greek Olympic Games in 776 BC to modern scientific contests such as XPrize. In many cases, they have led to achievements that have enabled us to leapfrog into the future.

Generating fresh ideas

Consider SpaceShipOne that made headlines in 2004 when it won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. To win the challenge, the aerospace designer Burt Rutan and the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen led the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks. In 2005 Rutan and Sir Richard Branson formed a new company around the innovation called Virgin Galactic. As they say, the rest is history.

As far back as 1714, the British government offered a prize for the accurate measurement of longitude, which led to other discoveries such as the marine chronometer and Mayer’s lunar tables. In 1795, Napoleon offered a 12,000-franc prize to drive innovation in food preservation, prompting the French brewer Nicolas Appert to develop an airtight preservation technique that is still in existence. Fast forward to the modern age, and many organisations are looking at innovation challenges to find solutions to issues as diverse as predicting patterns of hospital admissions to facilitating space tourism. The trend is becoming popular among companies and institutions, many of which run competitions to generate fresh ideas. What’s so special about a challenge?

Power of cooperation

Some experts argue that institutional roadmaps, as helpful as they can be at accelerating progress in known areas, are not always effective at identifying fresh opportunities outside of their physical boundaries or experience base. Resource allocation mechanisms also tend to be positively biased towards innovations that reinforce existing business models, whilst executives often tie R&D tightly to production and grounding new ideas in reality.

Beyond all this, there is another dimension as ASPIRE, the technology the technology programme management pillar of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council, seeks to show through the Mohammed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC) Maritime Grand Challenge. Betting on innovation through collaboration, ASPIRE invites leading universities, research institutions, companies, and individual innovators from all over the world to take part in the competition to find a real-time solution to a pressing global issue of maritime safety and security. Indeed, the competitive nature of humans is rivalled only by its better half: cooperation. As the polymath Bertrand Russell pointed out: “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”

The latest edition of the Mohammed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge, to be held in Abu Dhabi in 2023, will see a swarm of unmanned aerial and surface vehicles identify a target vessel from several similar ones in open waters, in a GNSS-denied environment, and offload specific items from the target onto an USV in the shortest possible time using autonomous technologies. This exercise is the first of its kind in the field of autonomous robotics.

The competition is not just about innovating an autonomous system, but it also intends to show the power of global collaboration in benefiting humanity at a broader level by aiding various emergency operations. Furthermore, grand challenges like these are sometimes more successful in fuelling innovation as they tell participants what the expected outcome should be, without specifying the way to do it.

Diverse incentives

Some consider the lucrative financial incentives of the competitions to be the x-factor. But is it really the monetary reward that drives participation, especially when at times, the prize can be modest?

To understand why global competitions such as the MBZIRC Maritime Grand Challenge work, we need to recognize a more diverse range of motivations offered by competitions to fuel outsized efforts, such as: the thrill of competing, the love and passion for a subject or an activity, and the reputational aspect of participating and performing well. However, foremost of these is the excitement to share fresh knowledge and ideas especially with otherwise unfamiliar individuals towards achieving a common objective. Financial incentives might still be a motivating factor for an innovator’s desire to solve a problem, but in many cases softer incentives outweigh the prize factor.

The ultimate benefit

The biggest acknowledgement of the effectiveness of competitions to drive innovation comes from companies such the UK-based InnoCentive, the San Francisco-based Kaggle and Cleveland-based NineSigma, as well as ASPIRE in Abu Dhabi, all of which have set up dedicated platforms to host challenges. Products developed through challenges may not always be commercially viable; nonetheless they are able to inspire research that could lead to greater discoveries.

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