Unconventional Competition Unleashes Outside-the-Box Innovation

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Unconventional Competition Unleashes Outside-the-Box Innovation

Competition is the natural order of the world.  Plants compete for sunlight and water.  Animals compete for food.  Primitive tribes of people compete with neighboring tribes for resources, and modern people living in technological societies compete in business, science, art, and other areas.  Competition serves as a catalyst for innovation and continuous improvement. 

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If people didn't compete, we would still be using Stone Age tools.  Likewise, when we see an area where competition is lacking, we usually see an equivalent type of stagnation. 

The Soviet Union was a case in point.  The old communists did a great job of innovating in defense and espionage, because they were constantly striving to outperform NATO.  On the other hand, they foundered in nearly every other area, because their state-owned-enterprises lacked competition.

Similarly, innovations like the personal computer did not come from the established leaders, such as IBM or DEC.  These companies enjoyed a lack of competition because they held virtual monopolies in their respective industry segments. 

This seeming advantage held hidden dangers.  It led them to define computing in a narrow fashion.  Clayton Christensen explained this tendency for industry leaders to overlook disruptive innovations in his landmark book, The Innovator's Dilemma.1

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That's why a new class of innovation competitions has been so effective.  Contests such as the X Prize provide the catalysts participants need to leap across the usual barriers and trigger disruptive change.  Part of that success comes from encouraging universities, as well as other non-traditional competitors with extraordinary resources and low "cost structures," to participate. 

According to LinuxInsider,2 Dr. Peter Diamandis conceived the X Prize Foundation after reading The Spirit of St. Louis, a book about Charles Lindbergh, who won a prize of $25,000 for being the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic.  The letter X stands for the unknown, but it also is the Roman numeral for 10, as in $10 million in prize money. 

So far, the X Prize has only been awarded once.  On October 4, 2004, an aircraft designed by Burt Rutan, the head of a company called Scaled Composites, and financed by Microsoft's co-founder Paul Allen, carried three people to an altitude of 100 kilometers twice within two weeks, winning the largest cash prize in history...

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