From orbit to India: Applying the XPRIZE model to global poverty

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By Catherine Cheney
Devex Impact

Zenia Tata, executive director of global development at the XPRIZE Foundation, stood in a room of top experts, industry leaders, and social entrepreneurs in water, malnutrition, waste, urban renewal, solar energy storage, and Internet connectivity.

They were gathered for a process XPRIZE calls “visioneering.”

“I am asking them to think like they were in a science fiction movie, to think what the world might look like and why this issue with water might just be something you read in the history books,” she said. “It goes from dreaming to making dreams reality. Then the ideas start coming out. And once those ideas start coming out, now you’re talking in XPRIZE terms.”

The XPRIZE slogan is “making the impossible possible.” At XPRIZE India, a satellite office far removed from headquarters in Los Angeles, California, Tata is modifying the moonshot approach to address problems in developing countries.

In 2004, the XPRIZE Foundation awarded $10 million to a suborbital human spacecraft. That prize worked as a catalyst for the private space industry that is taking off. Now Tata’s team is trying to use the same kind of incentivized competitions to supercharge global development. One challenge has been to find the middle ground between “science fiction” thinking and more immediate impact.

“The prize model is powerful because it democratizes innovation. It allows things to be achievable yet touch the edge of audacity. And it allows innovators to come from anywhere,” she said. “It also allows the donor community and the philanthropic community to only pay for success, and to demand that level of success.”

XPRIZE hired Tata, formerly executive director of International Development Enterprises, the nonprofit founded by Paul Polak, to turn the foundation’s gaze from the stars to impoverished communities — and to harness the same kind of “audacious” thinking about rocket systems to solve problems of poverty.

Paul Polak: Always curious, always learning

Age has not slowed Paul Polak, who, at 81, is leading three social ventures, with 10 more in the pipeline. We spoke with the visionary and social entrepreneur who shared the importance of always learning new stuff and what energizes him.

“The hardest thing for me was to teach people what we know inherently in international development, which is that everything is about tradeoffs,” she told Devex at the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley.

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