Build a Better Condom

June 28, 2013

Bill Gates is putting his money where his, um, privates are, with a contest and $100,000 prize to the lucky gal (or guy) who builds a truly better (meaning non-numbing) condom.

Contests are all the rage these days – in government and non-profits alike. From super-cheap, high-quality client-driven logo design contests to the big time innovation contests like the Drucker Award, funders and policy makers use contests to generate buzz. For communicators, there are a few key lessons here:

  1. Only use a contest if you’ve got a real reward. It doesn’t have to be big money, but it has to really matter. Example: our partners at Save the Colorado are giving away a rafting trip. For their folks, this is a fabulous prize. Long story short: consider the audience.
  2. Promote promote promote: the great power of a contest is that it gives you a natural hook, a natural calendar, and a natural end. Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Script your contest narrative to make the most of all three points.
  3. Innovation is a marathon; a contest is a sprint. Contests are a great way to light a fire for innovation, but they don’t create innovation. Keep this in mind, and keep your contest goals reasonable.

So back to Gates: the condom contest is classic way to spur innovation, and conversation, around sex, STD’s, and global population growth – three big, hard-to-tackle topics that are deeply intertwined. How so? Well, over 220 million women around the world aren’t ready for a baby but aren’t using modern contraception – often because it’s too expensive or not available, or because their partners don’t want to use the cheapest and most widely available device: the old reliable rubber.

When women aren’t able to plan their childbearing, the results are tragic. High maternal and infant mortality, unacceptable death rates from illegal abortions, and larger families for many who don’t want them. Unplanned pregnancies and faster growing populations also have an environmental effect: reducing women’s resilience in the face of a changing climate, and contributing to pressure on natural resources worldwide, especially food, water, and arable land.

Now before you blow a gasket thinking about the old-school notion of coercive “population control,” consider this: simply by meeting existing demand for contraception, world population would peak out at 9B in 2100, instead of 12B or even 15B. That’s a huge difference in the individual lives of women and families, and a big one for our ability to live together sustainably.

Of course it’s not all about numbers. Rich country consumption has got to come down. Now. But imagine a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person’s potential is fulfilled – that’s a more sustainable world. And a new generation condom that feels good could go a long way in making that world a reality.

Belinda Griswold