Business

Ordinary People Have Best Ideas

Peter Skidmore, a program manager from Seattle, has officially come up with the best idea since sliced bread.

Skidmore is the winner of a contest, organized by Service Employees International Union, in which he competed against 22,000 other innovators who were vying for the honor. Skidmore’s plan to impose a tax on polluters to pay for the development of local renewable energy and environmental restoration got him the $100,000 grand prize in Since Sliced Bread.

“I’m going to use it wisely,” said Skidmore, who worked for a decade as a consultant in environmental restoration. “I really want to put my money where my mouth is and use the money to on some level promote this idea. (I want to) use it wisely and never have regrets about how I spent it.”

After several rounds of public voting the 20 judges chose Skidmore’s idea based on originality, feasibility and the possible impact of the idea on the American economy. This year’s contest is the first of its kind, and organizers have yet to determine whether they will hold future Since Sliced Bread competitions.

Skidmore said his theory is rooted in a belief that we are squandering our children’s natural resources.

“I would like to promote broadscale environmental restoration and sustainable use of resources,” he said. “The tax was secondary to promoting sustainability.”

Contestants were restricted to explaining their idea in 175 words or less. Entries included everything from alternative energy startups to creating a civil works corps to develop local social programs.

Two runners-up will receive $50,000 each: Leslie Hester, a forestry graduate student at North Carolina State University, for her idea on public education reform, and Filippo Menczer, an associate professor of informatics and computer science at Indiana University, who devised a plan for tying minimum wage to the cost of living.

“What this contest proves to me is that average people can solve problems better than our corporate and political leaders,” said Carl Pope, a judge and executive director of the Sierra Club.

Not everyone is thrilled with the judges’ choices. When they announced the 21 finalists, the contest blog exploded with complaints.

Brian Julin, a wide area network specialist and Sliced Bread entrant who didn’t make the final cut, is one of the complainers. He insists it’s not sour grapes, but he has created a website that will host an alternative vote to select another peoples’ choice-style winner. When he has collected 7,040 votes, Julin will announce a ‘popular’ winner, who won’t receive a cash prize.

“There is a general feeling that SEIU took platform positions that they already supported and found the best wording for them,” Julin said.

Many of the dissatisfied bloggers are also rejected entrants. They say some ideas that made the cut, like one on universal health care, are not original and not worthy of the list, which will be documented in a book to be published later this year.

“Anything that helps enhance democracy to give average people a voice is a noble and good use of technology,” said David Sifry, a judge and founder of Technorati.

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