Disasters and Design

For months, an epidemic of the Ebola virus has torn through West Africa.  Official statistics as of Sept 23 report over 6,500 cases of the disease and 3,000 deaths; the CDC has calculated that the actual numbers are likely about 2.5 times as great. The economic and political consequences of the outbreak are greater still. A week ago, President Obama called upon the nations, international organizations, foundations, businesses, and citizens of the world to mount an immediate, serious, and sustained effort to curb the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. On Tuesday, a man was diagnosed with Ebola in Dallas – the first case diagnosed in the US.

An Ebola news app, for Android phones.
[https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.app_sletrnd.layout&hl=en]

These are the circumstances under which Columbia University announced an unusual initiative yesterday: the Columbia Design Challenge: Confronting the Ebola Crisis. Co-sponsored by the School of Public Health and the School of Engineering, the challenge aims to enlist members of the Columbia University community in conceiving “low-cost technology-driven (including both software and hardware) solutions to meet the tremendous challenges posed by the Ebola Crisis.” An opening forum on the evening of Thursday, Oct 2 will break down the crisis into “a small number of specific challenges for which low-cost technology solutions could have an immediate impact.” Over the subsequent week and a half, teams will assemble, craft pitches, received feedback, and build proof-of-concept prototypes.  “The goal of this rapid-fire, highly focused and intense Design Challenge,” the Challenge website explains, “will be to produce a credible design-concept (or rough prototype, if possible) to win continued support toward rapid development of a technology-driven solution (within approximately one to two months).”

Disasters are, and must be, occasions for teaching and learning. Usually, however, this teaching and learning happens after the disaster is through. How can we rearrange the national security bureaucracy to improve communication regarding terrorist threats? How can we rebuild laws, technology, and regulatory culture to make a more robust global financial system? How can we rebuild homes, flood maps, and infrastructure so that we are better prepared to weather the next hurricane? Such questions may be framed as history, as psychology, or (as American Science alum Lee Vinsel has done) as science and technology studies.

[http://www.waterfrontalliance.org/events/2013/10/29/hoboken-one-year-after-sandy-lessons-learned]

The Columbia challenge takes a different approach: identify the most pressing challenges in the midst of a crisis, and attempt to design new means of mitigating a disaster in progress. The urgency and stakes of the Ebola epidemic* may enlist fresh creative attention to developing new technologies – high or low**- for improving sanitary and public health infrastructure around the world. Organizing a design competition around the challenges presented by the Ebola epidemic is the antithesis of “solutionism,” a term popularized by Evgeny Morozov to critique the manner in which some technologists seem to define the world’s problems in terms of what existing technology is equipped to solve.

Still, considered more broadly, the Columbia Challenge raises questions about what and how we wish to learn from disasters. As the familiar hack-a-thon structure of the Challenge itself suggests, big problems are most effectively addressed through the implementation of an carefully designed, tested plan. How can we balance developing new solutions, technological and otherwise, on the fly – the invariable turning point of the disaster movie – against the routine work of implementing the plans that existing organizations like the CDC and the WHO have designed, refined, and put in place? How can those who constructed such plans or are entrusted with executing them ensure that their efforts received the resources that they require? How can we determine, first, whether these plans are actually being carried out as designed, and second, if not, whether they can be, or if so, whether they are working?***
If I were participating in the Columbia Design Challenge, I would look to the containment plans of the CDC and the WHO, and listen to the reports of the representatives of these and other health organizations about what might allow them to carry out their plans more effectively. Living up to President Obama’s call to “enhance our system of global health security for the long term” may ultimately demand big ideas and ambitious, outside-the-box thinking, in technology as well as in public policy and the organization and funding of international public health. But those are questions for a different Challenge, equipped with the full range of lessons that must be learned and taught based on the disaster in progress. The more quickly and seriously we focus on enabling existing institutions to deliver the pound of cure that they have prepared, the sooner the world’s policy-makers, engineers, physicians, and economists will be in a position to design ounces of prevention for the future.
* In West Africa, where thousands are dying, not in the US, where one case has been documented so far.  The CDC has made it clear in numerous statements that it has full confidence in its long-established plan to prevent the spread of the disease in the US.
** Disclaimer: the author of the editorial linked here is a friend of mine.
*** The same trade-off between following procedure and improvising in the interest of saving the world was displayed in the federal government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis.  Both TARP and ARRA (“the bailout” and “the stimulus”) have been variously criticized as insufficiently radical measures, on the one hand, and, on the other, as dangerous, arbitrary interventions disrupting the usual regulatory mechanisms governing the financial markets and the economy. The current lawsuit by former AIG head Hank Greenberg against the federal government for its management of the AIG bailout is one product of this tension between procedure and improvisation. Former Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner contends that AIG had to be forced to honor the face value of credit-default swaps that the firm issued in order to preserve the stability of the financial system; Greenberg alleges that doing so amounted to an arbitrary seizure of AIG’s property and its redistribution to other financial institutions.
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