This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded ScienceCheerleader.com and cofounded ScienceForCitizens.net to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.
The world may never know for certain who sparked the idea for the current BP oil containment cap. Professor Robert Bea, from the University of California, Berkeley, however, has a strong hunch:
Six weeks ago, Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, received a late-night call from an apologetic “mystery plumber.” The caller said he had a sketch for how to solve the problem at the bottom of the Gulf. It was a design for a containment cap that would fit snugly over the top of the failed blowout preventer at the heart of the Gulf oil spill.
Professor Bea, a former Shell executive and well-regarded researcher, thought the idea looked good and sent the sketches directly to the US Coast Guard and to a clearinghouse set up to glean ideas from outside sources for how to cap the stubborn Macondo well.
When Bea saw the design of the containment cap lowered onto the well last week, he marveled at its similarity to the sketches from the late-night caller, whose humble refusal to give his name at the time nearly brought Bea to tears.
Whether or not this unnamed plumber will or should receive credit for this is sketchy, but this much we know: more than 300,000 ideas from the public were submitted to BP. No prize money was offered, no promises of fame. When called upon to act, YOU, the public came through. Unfortunately, this natural reaction to collaborate and act upon a crisis is, more often than not, an unnatural reaction for most organizations. A host of reasons can be cited including politics, governance, legalities, public relations, etc.
It’s high time things change, no?
As painful as the past few months have been from an ecological, economic, social, and governance perspective, there are many lessons to be learned. I’d like to address one, here: some problems are too big to leave solely to the experts.
Earlier, on this blog, I argued for a more serious approach to solicit and vet solutions from the public. This led to several meetings and conversations with the White House, the National Academy of Engineering, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Expert Labs, and others, including the CEO of Innocentive, Dwayne Spradlin, who has done an incredible job of crowdsourcing potential solutions.
The entities, referenced above, and I have formed a loose network to figure out how we might help pre-wire the system before the next crisis strikes. Ideally, this process will make it easier to tap American ingenuity and facilitate the coordination, vetting, and delivery of the best ideas into the hands of the decision makers.
Call To Action
All of this presents an opportunity for the White House to flex its muscles and take the lead in assisting and directing players in this arena. The White House has already demonstrated both passion and success in finding ways to build collaborative, public-private partnerships.
Here are some practical suggestions:
The White House can ask the National Academy of Engineering to study and make recommendations for best practices (a playbook of sorts so we are better prepared in the future). However, because such reports typically take a few years to complete….
The NAE can host a public forum on this topic (soon).
Consider existing assets such as Innocentive’s technological platform to solicit and process ideas from the public.
Innocentive and Expert Labs can utilize their rapid-fire mechanisms to reach active scientists and engineers.
The Sloan Foundation’s support of the work the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars and Crisis Commons are doing (read on) can be expanded to support these related efforts. The Wilson Center and Crisis Commons are already at work improving upon methods to harness the collective power of volunteers who help with on-site crisis triage. Why not combine forces so these on-site “problem identifiers” can inform a distributed network of “problem solvers?”
If you have ideas, please share them here.
In closing, I’ll leave you with this, from Innocentive’s Dwayne Spradlin:
Natural and man-made disasters are, by their nature, devastating and unpredictable. But our response to them shouldn’t be. Government must take a lead here in assisting and directing parties to this end. We need to act now to be at a heightened readiness the next time. And there is always a next time.
Links to this Post
- Who gets the credit for the BP container cap? YOU do. « Earth Environment Underground | July 21, 2010
- Did a Mystery Plumber Design the BP Containment Cap? | Inhabitat - Green Design Will Save the World | July 22, 2010
- Did a Mystery Plumber Design the BP Containment Cap? « | July 22, 2010
- That Amazing, Unstoppable BP Container Cap Post | The Intersection | Discover Magazine | July 22, 2010
- Technically Philly » Links: Second Lower Merion student sues over webcam, Peco to display digital artists and more | Covering the Community of People Who Use Technology in Philadelphia. | July 30, 2010