The audacity of… wonder?

Over the weekend, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) conducted an interesting crowd-sourcing exercise wherein it challenged people to locate ten red balloons scattered across the United States and report their locations back to DARPA. A team led by researchers from MIT (.pdf) won the competition through a mixed method of profit motive and charity. The methodology for accomplishing this task was as varied as the participants, and I suspect the information gathered from this experiment represents a goldmine of information for DARPA and its research minded participants.

More interesting to me, however, was the response of DARPA’s director, Regina Dugan:

“The challenge has captured the imagination of people around the world, is rich with scientific intrigue, and, we hope, is part of a growing ‘renaissance of wonder’ throughout the nation.”

I think Director Dugan hit something squarely on the head with her statement that has been missing from the ongoing debates over complex problems as diverse as the world’s climate and the war in Afghanistan. These, and many problems like them, are impossibly huge, unendingly dynamic, and uncomprehendingly complicated for one person or even a small group of people to master. But, when many people  put their heads together, cooperatively, by providing their own small contribution to the understanding of the whole problem, suddenly such problems are no longer as difficult as they first appear.

What is missing from our current understanding and discourse on these kinds of problems is the incentive to work together to solve them. Too many people are too busy being apathetic, conceited, or chauvinistic to work together with people they might disagree with to reach a solution. Without some other kind of motive, most people’s natural tendency to assume everyone else is wrong cannot be overcome.

We can lament that this state of affairs was not always so, but it is now, and we have no choice but to deal with the situation we have. For this reason, I propose that we, as a nation, consider an expanded version of the very kind of thing DARPA–and the X-Prizes, the NASA prizes, and many others–has done:

Let’s take some or all of the money that the government is spending trying to do this or that in some narrowly defined and often unsuccessful way and apply it toward a series of prizes targeted at developing solutions to complex problems by encouraging people to develop broad-based and diverse organizations of participants that produce well thought-out and complete solutions.

I would put $500 of my own money up to bet that any solution to, say, national health care reform that would come out of such a process would be better, cheaper, and more likely to succeed than anything 536 Beltway Bandits and their hangers-on could ever produce.

How can I be so sure?

Because Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are going to start moving passengers in space planes before NASA manages to launch its last generation throwback Apollo capsule because somebody put up $10 million saying it could be done. Because a bunch of researchers and interested parties from around the US managed to find 10 balloons spread all across the US in one afternoon for $40,000. Because a prize and bragging rights motivates people to do all sorts of things they might not have otherwise been willing or able to do.

Give people a motive, and they can accomplish anything. Welcome to the audacity of wonder, 2009 style.


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