If I asked you: what is the best way to incentivize work and innovation in a large economic system? You would immediately respond: financial reward. However, that assumption might not be correct. Here's why.
As a serial entrepreneur, I'm constantly thinking about building new businesses. One of my long standing dreams has been to start a real world company that operates like a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. One reason I believe that this type of venture would work (and that my dream wasn't purely a fantasy) is this simple insight: MMOs with persistent environments (aka "worlds") have proven an ability to incentivize tens of millions of players to do billions of hours of work.
I'm talking about real, active work and not merely mindless, passive entertainment. Everything from drudge work to extremely complex analysis to the coordination of large groups in the pursuit of solving complex problems. All of this work was accomplished without a real world economic incentive. Instead the pay-off was (tested over billions of hours of play):
- Improvement in status (level).
- Gain new capabilities (new tools) and skills.
- Earn in-game faux money (to purchase new tools and status enhancing items).
In each case, the incentives offered are virtual, digital creations that don't exist outside the gaming "world."
NOTE: Here's what is interesting about this to those of us working on ways to accelerate the roll out of resilient communities: it may be possible to build a global online economic system that operates based on these MMO incentives. The twist is that once the core needs of the players are met (real world money and/or resilient community services), all of the incentives for work/innovation would be based on status, tools, and in game currency. However, the new levels and tools that would actually be earned would be real and not playthings/artifacts. This would include an ability to do more faster (productivity), access to more (data, processing power, "intellectual property" etc.), an ability to draw on community resources more (financial investment and equipment access for projects), etc.
NOTE2: Daniel Suarez was obviously thinking along the same lines when he wrote "Freedom (TM)." Hence my excitement.