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VISIONEERS, or how to stop complaining and start fixing global problems

It's not everyday that you get to see the future happening right before your eyes. We're so focused on the day to day, paralyzed by uninformative and amygdala-stimulating news reports, that we rarely allow ourselves to take some time off to think about the future of humanity. The challenges we face today seem so out of our reach, and we feel so insignificant, that even when we do ponder about what's coming next, it's no more than a mere intellectual exercise.

However, there are people who not only think about the future constantly, but proactively make plans on how to improve it, and often deliver on the promises. Last week I was privileged enough to be part of such a group at the XPRIZE VISIONEERING conference in Los Angeles.

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Presenting on the XPRIZE stage.

XPRIZE is the child of my dear friend Peter Diamandis, and what this project has accomplished in just a few years is nothing short of extraordinary. The story goes that Peter's childhood dream was to become an astronaut, but he didn't qualify for NASA's standards of physical aptitude. So he decided he would go to space himself.

Most people would stop at that thought, knowing that it would remain a child's dream and nothing more. Then again, Peter is not like most people. He was so determined to go to space so much that over the past twenty years he almost single-handedly rekindled global interest for space exploration. The 1996 Ansari XPRIZE – a $10-million prize awarded to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks – was the reason that led Richard Branson to start Virgin Galactic and his private space enterprise, and many say it gave Elon Musk the inspiration to pursue Space X.

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Since then, XPRIZE has become the new standard for disrupting innovation in areas where things had been stagnating for decades, either due to market failures or because of circumstances beyond any individual's control. The concept is simple: put out a $10/$20 million prize for the first team to do X, x being whatever currently unresolved challenge humanity is facing. Many teams compete in a friendly "coopetition", but only the best wins. The genius idea behind this approach is that the total amount of capital spent and value generated is much greater than the prize to be won. Teams collectively spend huge amounts of money, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars, in the off-chance of taking home the $10 million prize. But in the process, they jumpstart in their country and community an ecosystem of innovation in a sector that had been stagnating for years. The winners will open source their technology for the benefit of all humanity.

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Since its creation, XPRIZE projects include:

  • super-efficient vehicles that achieve 100 MPGe (2.35 liter/100 kilometer) efficiency, produce less than 200 grams/mile well-to-wheel CO2 equivalent emissions, and could be manufactured for the mass market
  • successfully launching, landing, and operating a rover on the lunar surface.
  • doubling the industry's previous best oil recovery rate tested in controlled conditions by exceeding 2500 gallons per minute (with at least 70% efficiency of oil collected over water)
  • a mobile device that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians
  • free Android apps to spread reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, and prove their effectiveness over an 18-month period in African pilot communities

The list keeps growing every year.

So how do they decide what the next XPRIZE is going to be? Every year the team organizes in Los Angeles a two-day retreat called, quite appropriately, VISIONEERING. In the spirit of friendly coopetition, visioneers form teams and compete for the best idea, voting democratically at each stage. Some of these ideas might go on to become the next XPRIZE.

This year I was asked to lead the Future of Work session as visiting expert.

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