A selection of condoms, in Boston, Mass., March 12, 2004. (William B. Plowman/GETTY IMAGES)

When Bill Gates announced a $100,000 prize for a next generation condom that “significantly preserves or enhances pleasure” for users, the reaction was predictable. People tittered and giggled. They engaged in the same kind of juvenile pun making as they did during the Lululemon yoga pants fiasco. And so it goes anytime we start talking about innovating in the world of the social taboo. Especially when it has to do with our sexuality, our bodily functions or social stigmas, we tend to overlook the potential for new innovation or the opportunity to re-frame a socially embarrassing issue in a different way.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

World-famous design firm IDEO, in fact, believes that social taboos can become an active source of new, game-changing innovations that open up entirely new opportunities within certain industries. Take Viagra, for example. What might have been an embarrassing medical problem for men — erectile dysfunction — has been reframed as a new recreational drug for older pleasure-seekers. Or, how about dating? Remember when there was a social stigma attached to meeting someone online? Other social taboos that we avoid discussing — anything from toilets to childbirth — can become serious topics for future innovators rather than simply a plot device for a Hollywood film gross-out scene.

(Peter Dazeley/GETTY IMAGES)

That’s what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is hoping will happen with its new $100,000 condom innovation prize. There’s a serious topic that needs to be addressed: the global health-care crisis created when millions of people living with sexually transmitted diseases may not know that they’re infected and still engage in sexual intercourse without wearing a condom. As Bill Gates recognized, there’s a social taboo associated with regular condom use in many parts of the world. As a result, for the past 50 years, there has only been limited technological innovation in how people make condoms.

That’s why, perhaps, the Foundation mentioned “neurobiology” alongside “new shapes/designs” and “safe new materials” as a possible design direction to go in the development of a next-generation condom. We need to understand what happens in the neural pathways of our brains as much as we need to develop new synthetic materials or innovative packaging. There is a complex nexus of emotions, feelings and biases that go into condom use that we simply don’t acknowledge. By overcoming the social taboos around condoms, it’s possible to promote regular, consistent use.

It’s hard to argue with the Gates’ track record. Last year, his next-generation toilet competition drew the same kinds of snickers, and yet ultimately resulted in innovative toilet designs that have the potential to change the future of sanitation in the developing world. Better sanitation, in turn, has the potential to stop the outbreak of illnesses and diseases that afflict many developing nations.

Whether it’s new materials that build on our knowledge of nanotechnology, new shapes that better reflect how same-sex partners use condoms differently, or creative packaging designs that erase the perceived social stigma of using condoms — there are many different ways to go about designing the next-generation condom. We just need to change the way we think about social taboos today.

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