Which of the world's biggest problems needs to be solved now?

Britain has launched a new prize to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time. But which one?
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor

What's the greatest challenge our world faces today? Is it the fact that a large rise in sea levels is now "inevitable"? Is it public health? Biodiversity? Is it a threat from beyond our world? There are many problems we're facing that could use an innovation kickstart.

But the British government has narrowed them down to a list of six. The government announced the Longitude Prize that will award a £10 million (about $17 million) prize to a team that is able to find the best solution to "one of the greatest issues of our time." The British public will decide which issue is most pressing from a list of six problems.

Here are the problem categories the prize could address:

  • Reducing antibiotic resistance by creating "a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time."
  • Lowering airplane emissions by designing a airplane that can get "as close to zero-carbon as possible" and fly from London to Edinburgh at a speed comparable to today's aircraft.
  • Creating a better solution to give people with paralysis more freedom of movement.
  • Developing a food innovation to help provide everyone with nutritious, affordable and sustainable food.
  • Finding a way to make water desalination technology cheaper and more sustainable.
  • Designing a way for people with dementia to live more independent lives.

A public vote will take place between May 22 and June 25 to determine which issue will get the money to spur a solution. The competition will run for five years or until someone meets the criteria to win the prize.

The idea of an innovation prize isn't new. Google is using the model to spur innovations in solar energy. DARPA uses it to create better designs. It's also the idea behind the X Prize. Plus, the original Longitude Prize came about 300 years ago, in 1714, when the British government posted a £20,000 reward for anyone who could develop the best, most accurate way to determine a ship's longitude.

So why doesn't Britain just invest the $17 million in research related to one of these problems? As Forbes explained, when discussing a recent Google innovation prize, the idea is that they are able to generate more investment than $17 million in the research area because, in theory, you are able to attract many different research groups to invest as much as $17 million on researching a solution. Or, as Forbes puts it, "the cumulative spending of many teams is highly likely to be a large multiple of the prize itself." For example, in the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million prize to spur the development of a manned, reusable spacecraft, the 26 teams that pursued a solution, and the prize, spent more than $100 million.

And innovation prizes are becoming a more popular way to find solutions to problems. According to a 2009 McKinsey study, the aggregate value of prizes worth more than $100,000 had tripled in the previous decade to $375 million. The researchers concluded: "Ultimately, the ability of prizes to mobilize participants and capital, spread the burden of risk, and set a problem-solving agenda makes them a powerful instrument of change."

But, in your opinion, which of six Longitude problems needs to make use of this "powerful instrument of change" first? Or are there more pressing problems the prize should have considered addressing?

Photo: Flickr/ReillyButler

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards