At the end of a fun summer Saturday, just before Father’s Day, my son and I sat ourselves down and decided to see what was on teevee.  There, on the Science Channel, was just what we were hoping for – the RoboGames with Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame.  It’s a competition of remote controlled devices that thrash, rip, and sometimes shoot fire at each other in a metal wrestling match running amok.  It’s great stuff.  There’s spectacle, destruction and competition – the battle to prove you are the best.

It’s enough to make my son get out his drawing notebook and talk about a father son trip to the Ax Man surplus store, too.

This may seem like a simple father-son moment of geekdom, but it’s much more than that.  Competition is the best way to fire the imagination, engaging heart and arm and brain.  It could even be an important tool of public policy.

Another good example of competition are the X-Prizes, made famous by their $10M prize to for civilian spaceflight.  Beyond even the competition was the spark of imagination that has now spawned Virgin Galactic, what may be the first of a new industry.  Less well known are the many X-Prizes in other fields, including the recent $5M prize for a 100 MPG (or equivalent) car.

If these contests fire up the energy of clear, creative minds beyond the prizes given you know that something great will come if.  Now, imagine for a moment that there is some serious money behind it and some very big attention.

Take 300 million dollars.  Start by carefully outlining, in detail, exactly what our nation needs, such as a renewable energy source that is plentiful and affordable.  Once you have very specific targets, the whole prize can be seeded by 1,000 grants of up to $100k for people and institutions like corporations or universities that have some decent ideas.  Throw in some interim goals for additional awards of 100 $1M grants to reduce their systems to practice and prove them on a bigger scale.  The best one at the end wins a monster prize of $100M to do with as they please.

This may seem like a lot of money, but $300M is less than $1 for every person in the nation.  For that, a big contest with some serious cash both up front and as a prize could change the way we do nearly anything.

As the X-Prizes have shown, the spirit of competition is about much more than the money.  Winning is what it’s all about at some point, and an organization that is deep into the process will put up its own money for the prestige.  If Big Ten (or so) schools can put so much into football, why not the Energy Bowl?

If our national security is worth anywhere near as much as the more than one trillion dollars we’re putting into Defense, Homeland Security, and so on every year, it’s certainly worth 0.03% of that for energy independence.  One prize may not change the landscape completely, but start a contest like this every year for a specific goal of some kind and in a decade the economy might look very different.  It probably would create quite a few jobs as well.

The best teevee shows for my son are the ones that get his notebook and pen out before they are over.  RoboGames certainly got his imagination flowing and sense of competition fired up.  Imagine that energy being directed into a public good with some serious cash behind it, and you might change a lot more than just a technology – you could change a nation’s outlook.