How Breaking the Rules Could Win You $250,000

The M.I.T. Media Lab’s proposition is simple: Break the rules or shake up the status quo, and you might win $250,000 in cash — no strings attached. No, it’s not a joke. Nominations for the lab’s new Disobedience Award are open.

“There are people doing really important things, breaking either the rules or sticking to their principles with knowledge that they will be hurt or punished in some way,” Joi Ito, the director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview on Thursday.

“There are a number of really amazing people who just don’t get attention — we hope it will be someone who gives us courage like Malala,” he added of the eventual recipient, referring to the Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

The lab created the award after realizing that “in a lot of large institutions there’s really two ways you make progress,” Ethan Zuckerman, the director of M.I.T.’s Center for Civic Media, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “You make progress when people follow the rules and work their way through the processes, and then sometimes you make very radical progress by someone who essentially says, ‘Look, these processes don’t work anymore, and I need to have a radical shift in what I’m doing.’”

Mr. Zuckerman cited examples over the last few years of what he described as “responsible disobedience” including Apple’s resistance to unlock iPhones at the request of the United States government and pushback from Energy Department employees over a questionnaire that included inquiries about those who had attended climate change conferences.

Submissions should be guided by principles including “nonviolence, creativity, courage and taking responsibility for one’s actions,” the online nomination form says.

So is the lab encouraging people to break laws or commit acts of civil disobedience?

Unjust laws should be challenged, Mr. Ito said. “If you challenge them without breaking them, that’s even better. Laws evolve over time and are meant to be challenged, and if they are not challenged they do not evolve.”

(Mr. Ito noted that he is an elected member of the board of The New York Times Company. The Times has no role in the prize.)

Plans for the award were announced last year, and the nomination process was recently established. The cash prize is funded by Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn. Living individuals and groups are eligible for the award, with entries reviewed by activists, scientists, designers and engineers. Submissions opened this week and conclude on May 1. The recipient will be announced on July 21.

photo credit: Erik Jacobs for The New York Times