At the head of the famous foundation created by Peter Diamandis, Marcus Shingles explains the amazing potential of citizens regarding innovation.
“Right now, a Maasai Warrior on mobile phone has better mobile communications than President Reagan did 25 years ago,” says the man the crowd came for. A TED invitee, Peter Diamandis presents his theory of Abundance with a technophile’s unwavering confidence and an entrepreneurial charisma. It’s 2012, which the media has referred to dozens of time as a black year: a black year for Syria, for employment, journalists, hoteliers, and even poached elephants. Under this bleak ambiance, the transhumanist entrepreneur is still convinced we’re living in a time of opportunity, and he’s come to stamp out the idea that we’re barreling toward catastrophe. In truth, he says, our planet is a land of Abundance. Abundance in energy, in water, in communication, in health, in education. The challenge is getting access for all.
Technology is key, he says. He doesn’t mean a world of orgiastic consumption, and abundance doesn’t mean a “deluxe life.” Rather, it means a “life of possibilities” enabled by technological growth. The idea of the technological singularity is that artificial intelligence will ignite a surge of exponential technological growth. This 56-year-old Greek-American entrepreneur, engineer, and physician teamed up with Ray Kurzweil to found Singularity University, which looks to teach students how to quickly and positively impact the life of billions of people through technology.
But Peter Diamandis is also the creator of the XPRIZE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has, for the last 20 years, organized huge public competitions to inspire technological innovations that could resolve thorny problems for humanity. The key word for XPRIZE is “moonshot:” it’s shooting for the moon via radical technological disruptions.
“Our goal is to push the limits of innovation and technology, but also to change mentalities to help people shoot for the moon,” says Zenia Tata, who directs the Foundation’s international development, with several years of experience at other nonprofits. “We think ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things, that our world no longer relies solely on scientists, politicians, or academics to change the trajectory of humanity.”
Still, XPRIZE doesn’t claim to offer a grand solution to all of humanity’s challenges. The organization understands the complexity of intersecting problems. “More than a question of access and of resources, it’s a question of social justice, of democracy,” Tata explains. “Water, for example, is a question of climate change, of environment, of type, of aid. We know this isn’t simple. We’re trying to understand the situation in its entirety so we can figure out opportunities that offer solutions despite their problems and their weaknesses.”
And they have great minds pondering the question. XPRIZE’s board of directors include a number of influential characters in the world of innovation, such as Elon Musk, James Cameron, Ray Kurzweil, and Larry Page, who bring their expertise and a pioneer inspiration, as well as financing certain projects.
The day-to-day operations, however, are run by Marcus Shingles, who directs the company and represents it around the world. The amiable 46-year-old CEO of the Foundation, with icy blue eyes and rigid shoulders, seems prepared to carry the weight. He answered our questions at a riverside interview.
What led you to work at XPRIZE?
Before, I came from management consulting I was a partner at Deloitte Consulting. I was the head of innovation practice there globally, that were focused on using some of the disruptive trends in technologies, like IA, robotics, 3D printing and biotech and alike. How do large companies start incorporating that into their thinking and into their innovation strategies as organizations.
And so the switch or the transition over to XPRIZE was partly based on seeing some of the success I saw on the business sector with large clients I had. They were using technologies in a way that was very disruptive and also in a way I hadn’t seen in 25 years – the amount of invention and innovation that was occurring. You know, like, the land was that for 25 years, from industry – (I used to work at the Kellogg company, was at Ernst & Young for a while, had my own business for a period of time and then Deloitte) but in all those examples like I worked with the Fortune 200-300, many times trying to connect them to startups – and I had never seen a period of time like I’ve seen in the last 5 years with so much opportunity to explore and invent and innovate.
If you’re a banking consultant, you start thinking about the blockchain which is now starting to emerge as a disrupter. If you’re a transportation secretary for the government, you start thinking about self-driving cars. If you’re in the healthcare space, you start seeing the sequencing of the human genome… This is all happening now across the board and the undercurrent is the incredible and exponential power of technology.
So it’s not by accident or by happenstance that we see a plethora of stuff happening. It’s because there is this underline narrative of computing power, doubling, as it always has been doubling, in a way to we’re hitting this knee in the curve point history of that doubling has been component to be such significant computing power that’s just opening the door to all these new breakthroughs.
And so on the business side I saw that happening, and I kind of woke up to the fact that there’s a tremendous amount of problem solving or disruption in the for-profit space, can’t that be used in the non-profit space? And just like companies were starting to use crowdsourcing to insure the developement of their next app, or of their next commercial. The crowd was starting to become a really legitimate and relevant source of skills and resources. And XPRIZE had been doing that for over a decade before it even got to be called “crowdsourcing”, it has always been kind of the original innovator in that space of trying to figure out how to gamify innovation to this kind of set up a competition structure, but it’s essentially crowdsourcing before we called it efficiently the crowd.
So lot of the transition into where I am now at XPRIZE was just seeing that they had already cut their teeth on the model but the landscape moving forward was completely different than the landscape of the last ten years they had been operating into because now, that crowd is becoming extremely sophisticated. And so it becomes what I call the emergence of a new asset class of “problem solvers” that the world never seen before. Which is 7 billion people getting connected to each other in a very short period of time with access to technology that only big government or big industry had a decade ago.
And so the responsible thing to do is to try to innovate and solve problems using this progressive contemporary methods by tapping into that new emerging asset. And that’s what XPRIZE is focused on.
How did you meet Peter Diamandis?
So when I was a partner at Deloitte I arranged for the, I established with Peter directly with Peter, who you know I met six-seven years ago, and we formed this alliance between Deloitte consulting and Singularity University and XPRIZE– XPRIZE being a non-profit, but it was taking Deloitte clients’ base Fortune 500 companies and getting them exposure to some of the works Peter was doing with XPRIZE and Singularity University, which was just a very very well connected California-based model that was integrated with the innovation ecosystem of the world and some of the best innovators in the world. We established a relationship where Deloitte would give pro bono resources to help XPRIZE do its mission.
What is the philosophy at the core XPRIZE?
Yes, the belief system there is that the world has grand challenges facing it, and you can use deductive reasoning to identify which ones will not be focused or solved because you can literally, in a process of elimination, look at a great challenge and say: “Well the government is not going to fix this in the timeline that the world needs it.” That’s very important, because maybe eventually, but it needs to be solved in next 8 years – like the crisis with the oceans. And the government is not innovating – or it needs help to innovate. Private industry doesn’t have a profit motive to spark a lot of innovation into that sector, towards that great challenge.
So the belief system is: “We can research and identify those gaps, those voids. Here’s a problem that is facing humanity. Here’s a timeline where that problem is going to get very significant, to the point of no return.” And then: “Let’s go research and ask traditional problem solvers of society if they’re gonna solve this.” If they are great, XPRIZE will not probably prefer that someone else focus on it. Where we try to research is when we get everybody to say: “I’m not gonna do this, not on this timeline.” And there’s a lot of that unfortunately, and so what’s your option at that point?
If everybody is checking out, saying: “I’m not gonna solve this, I’m not gonna come up with a breakthrough to solve this problem on this timeline.” What XPRIZE has to say is: “What if we get someone in the world who do this?” And wonder if we can crowdsource an individual or small team that can do this. And that’s the research we do.
Not everything works, so sometimes the answer is no. The XPRIZE methodology of using crowdsourcing and set up a competition price, with a game mechanics — that’s kind of what that is. Sometimes t’s not conducive either to do it. Or the opposite, actually it’s completely conducive for this, that we can create a competition or at least dress up like a competition. It’s essentially a behavioral science instrument which is saying: “Hey world, let’s solve this problem ourselves and we’re gonna gamify the whole thought process through it.” That’s kind of where XPRIZE is focused.
Does it trigger interest in government entities?
100%. In fact, we just went through our annual process called Visioneers, which is a part of our model where we vet concepts. On whether or not they can make impact with this model. So we actually hire teams, and we staff teams that focus on different challenges. And then we get funding to support the impact proposal design process. And so the government of Chile just did one Zero Waste Mining, how can you do mining without printing an environmental foot print, and the better ways to do that. Again, government is not innovating, the industry is not innovating, so how can we do that?
The government of Singapour did a cyber design with us, completely thinking about how can you create better cyber security, where it’s becoming very challenging, especially for consumers. A lot of things are happening in business, but not for first citizens. They have their own cyber defensor higiene.
One of our board members is very involved with the government of China and they did Green China. They did an air pollution design with us, a new technology that helps citizens and consumers to protect themselves from the polluted air in a way that allows them empowerment to solve that problem themselves by having access to technologies. We imagined a sweater that has nanotechnology fiber in it that filters air around you as you breathe — that type of innovation.
It makes a lot of sense because I think governments realize that they’re wired to create standard processes, very risk-adverse, not very agile and adaptable. So when they see our model as a non-profit, they are like… Because first, it’s a prize model so you only pay for results. Tax payers like it when money goes to pay for results versus just a research. And they realize they got to start taping into the citizens of the world to solve and innovate and come up with ideas, versus whatever government folks they have in that box.
And secondly, there is no competition between ideas. An XPRIZE is like: “come on, test it, prove it and make a moonshot happen”. A 10x improvement over a grand challenge versus just a incremental 10% improvement.
None of this century’s great challenges elude XPRIZE’s ambition, which manages to cover every topic through sheer volume of projects. Since the Ansari XPRIZE, launched in 1995 and completed in 2004, which had teams compete to build private spacecraft, 15 other projects have been launched. Eight are currently ongoing. They promise between $1-25 million to winners, and each challenge pits between 5 and 141 teams against one another. Space exploration, education, automobiles, artificial intelligence, carbon dioxide—it’s all covered.
Launched in 2014, the Global Learning XPRIZE will annually award the best digital innovation for children in developing countries. The idea is to give kids open source access to basic learning programs for reading, writing, and arithmetic. “The one thing I’ve learned at XPRIZE is that small teams driven by passion with cold focus can do extraordinary things,” Peter Diamandis likes to say on stage.