Vital Risk

The Ansari X Prize offered $10 million to whoever could pull off the first non-NASA manned space flight in the US. It worked, and Virgin (of Megastore fame) will soon be offering commercial space flights as a result. The X Prize's founder, Peter Diamandis, had this to say about his inspirational award in a recent post in GOOD Magazine's Big Ideas series: "The Ansari X Prize experiment worked, just like when Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize for his transatlantic flight 80 years ago. We are genetically programmed to compete, and we do our best work, and take the highest risks when we go head-to-head for fame, fortune, or honor...X Prizes are one way to combat the risk-averse society that has developed over the last 40 years. As an American, I think risk-averse behavior is destroying our nation."

Diamandis, here, puts concisely into words what it seems like a lot of Americans are feeling lately: we have gone soft. The United States, one of the most dynamic and innovative nations in the history of human civilization, is falling behind other countries in many areas. Our telecommunications, internet, financial, and transportation industries -- among others -- are struggling to keep up with those in countries less tied down by byzantine policy and disturbingly well-established corporate hierarchies. The US is still a global economic leader, no doubt. Still, with China and India (not to mention little South Korea with its hyperfast 'net) nipping fervently at our heels, this country's position is not as assured as it once was. Our risk-averse behavior, which has manifested itself most blatantly in the nauseating wave of paranoia that has gripped Americans for the past seven years, is hampering our competitiveness in the global marketplace. At a time like this, visionaries like Diamandis are sorely needed.

That makes you wonder what the X Prize could do for American cities. As has been generally accepted as fact by now, the fortunes of contemporary nations are tied directly to those of those nation's major urban areas. In the United States, logic suggests that our lack of effective and innovative urban policy over the past half century (or more) has had more than a little bit to do with the US' threatened position at the top of the global economic heap. And with Scientific American recently having named the X Prize Foundation as the Policy Leader of the Year, it stands to reason that Mr. Diamandis might be able to do a lot of good by wielding some of his foundation's influence in urbanism-related fields.

As it turns out, he's one step ahead. The X Prize Foundation is currently sponsoring a competition to develop the world's most efficient vehicle -- with a minimum rating of 100 miles per gallon. Thanks to the auto and oil industries' ferocious lobbies, this kind of competition would have been unheard of just a couple of years ago. Now, the 43 entries are being prepared for the Detroit and New York auto shows. A 100mpg car -- designed and (hopefully) made in America -- is literally just over the horizon.

So take a minute, now, to imagine what the X Prize could do for the myriad of long-abused and misunderstood policy issues facing American cities. Private transportation is important in today's sprawling megaregions, but what might the X Prize be able to do to improve affordable housing, crime, or mass transit? The last of these was addressed in a recent op-ed piece in the LA Times (written, shockingly, by a policy analyst from the transit-loathing "Reason" Foundation), which asked: "The X Prize was just a $10-million purse, yet it helped induce the birth of private spaceflight as well as a host of technological innovations. Is it really so fanciful to think that it could conquer gridlock?" Here's the op-ed pitch for Los Angeles:

"The Metropolitan Transportation Authority carves out some of the $115 billion in transportation funding that's headed to the region over the next couple of decades to stage a contest....[and] creates two teams. Team A tries to lure as many motorists out of their cars as possible by building rail. (Note to referee: Ex-bus riders don't count as ex-motorists.) Team B must lure motorists to telecommuting. The team with the most ex-motorists after a set period of time wins the prize."

Game on!

(Photo from Flickr user phamthanhk45. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

X Prize (GOOD)

X Prize Foundation

Detroit 2008: Automotive X-Prize entries coming to Cobo (AutoBlog)

Create some healthy competition (LA Times)

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