Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Best Ideas Are Not Being Heard

One of the most frustrating things about watching the hapless efforts to stop the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is knowing that thousands of people who are observing the process have the answer. By now, people must have thought of 50 completely different solutions to the problem of an open well on the sea floor, any one of which would suffice to contain the oil, at least temporarily. These ideas are not being heard because the economy does not provide a mechanism for moving ideas from the people who have them to the people who need them.

BP, to its credit, is accepting ideas from the public, but doesn’t know what to do with the ideas once it receives them. Its engineers, quite properly, are focused on using known techniques to try to cap the well, and will never find time to consider the creative suggestions people are offering. It doesn’t help that engineering ideas that come in from non-engineers can be poorly described and further garbled along the way. It also doesn’t help that BP has publicly disparaged the ideas it has received — that doesn’t exactly encourage people to put their suggestions forward. I’m sure it’s true that many of the ideas are “crazy,” but if just 10 percent of the suggestions are constructive and 1 percent are workable, then it ought to be possible to find, among that group, the ideas that would actually be effective.

Or so you would hope. Yet there is no area of the economy that does well at collecting new ideas and putting them into practice. Science? New theories with strong evidence to back them up often languish for 40 years, until the old guard dies. Law enforcement? A building can be a “known drug house” for years before any surveillance is carried out. Books? Even if you are the star of a television show, most book publishers won’t look at your manuscript unless it comes through an intermediary. Speaking of television, it took MTV ages to get carried on cable systems, and even after MTV had become the best-known name in television, it still took years to get MTV2 on cable.

New ideas are often blown off with the free-enterprise excuse. If you have a good idea, it is an opportunity for you to start your own business and make a profit. That’s one of the kinder ways that people in a position to do something say, “Go away, and stop bothering me with your ideas.” Let’s apply this strategy to the people who know they have the solution to BP’s oil well problem. Can they get the funding to demonstrate their ideas? Perhaps — if they have an engineering degree and a track record in the field. Let’s say it takes 3 years to get the engineering degree, another 3 years to gain experience in an area of engineering, then 5 years to design and introduce a series of products on a smaller scale in order to gain credibility in the field, and finally, 2 more years to round up funding and have the original well-capping idea tested. I am certain this describes the pending career path of dozens of observers for whom the problems surrounding the oil spill have helped them become aware of their interest in one area of engineering or another. And the suggestion of the 13-year lag is not entirely silly — the way things are going, there is no guarantee that BP will have the well capped 13 years from now, and besides, the next deep-water well to blow will face the same difficulties. But it would be so much better if we could get those answers sooner, and not suffer through a 13-year lag that is really just an inefficiency in the structure of the economy.

And engineering moves faster than most parts of the economy. What do we do when we need solutions in less time than 13 years, or 20 years? At the very least, we need to be aware that many of the best ideas out there are being lost in the shuffle.