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.
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.
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.