One of my favorite stories relates to the cholera epidemic that hit London back in 1832. Over 6,000 died in the first year and no one knew what was going on. It was not until 1848 that Dr. John Snow identified that cholera was caused by a water borne infestation. It was not until 1859 that work began on constructing a London sewage system. And it was not until the 1870’s that the system was completed. All during that time, cholera epidemics would periodically appear, kill and then disappear like a swamp gorgon.
The story fascinates me for two reasons. Looking on the bright side, it was a great step forward to solve the problem at all. Prior to this, one did not expect that science could have this kind of practical public health application.
But one might also ask, why did it take so long to solve the problem? And even after London solved the problem, not all took note. So cholera struck an unprepared Hamburg as late as 1892. One wonders if the Hamburg authorities knew about what had transpired in London and if they did, what they told Hamburgians about it.
The slow pace of adaption was not due to the complexity of the underlying problem nor a lack of resources to study it or solve it. It was instead because of an aversion to studying poop management by those who should have done so. Even when Dr. Snow identified the cause of cholera in 1848, no one wanted to believe it and no one acted on Snow’s discovery for a decade. Even then, the work to build a solution went slowly. I can imagine the “nay sayers”. “How inconvenient!” “Do we really need this?” But it was needed and the construction of the London sewage system is now considered to be a great Victorian achievement.
Flash forward to 2014. Doctors do not understand how the human immune system works. But with expensive drugs, we do know how to dampen its effects. For example antihistamines can reduce the severity of allergy reactions. And drug companies would like to sell a lot more drugs to “treat” the symptoms of all sorts of immune system irregularities and diseases … as if the causes of the irregularities themselves are beyond understanding. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is one such disease.
Now consider this quote from Health Line
While pharmaceutical companies pursue the development of new therapies to help prevent new MS attacks or slow disease progression, little money is being invested in studying the relationship between diet and disease. (emphasis added)
Well, that is because the alleged relationship between diet and disease has been newly discovered, right? Wrong. Dr. Swank first published his findings about the relationship between diet and MS back in the 1960’s. His work was largely ignored by the medical community for four decades. And even now, neurologists who diagnose MS generally are either unaware of or indifferent to the diets of their patients.
What to make of this? Here is a modest proposal. The direction of research should not be controlled by parties who have an interest in not finding a solution. So London authorities back in Victorian times had no interest to admit that the water system they managed was periodically killing London residents. So today, drug companies have less than robust interest in curing a disease when they profit from treating its symptoms. Nor should we expect the food industry to have a strong interest in researching the health effects of what they need to sell. The sad story of Dr. Yudkin comes to mind.
The solution? It is not to attack the interests of the parties involved. I am delighted, for example, that drug companies have produced antihistamines. The solution is to empower parties who are interested in solving the problem to exchange their ideas and fund research. It is this broader and more efficient exchange that accelerates the rate of problem solving. And this is why I have been fascinated by “Githubing” and “crowdfunding”.
We are looking for ways to unlock the potential of better platform building. To empower people who are looking for solutions to connect with people who have ideas and to test those ideas. And here is the fun fact: we don’t do this very well yet.
FOLLOW UP – Another eye opening story about finding solutions relates to the terrible Challenger disaster that took place in January, 1986. What could have gone wrong? It was unrealistic to expect NASA to answer that question based on an internal investigation alone. Too many people inside NASA were interested in their reputations more than exposing the cause of the disaster. An external investigation was obviously needed.
But who would do that work? As it turned out, the interests of this panel were critical to understanding what they would discover. Only the involvement of a credible “truth finder” and self-proclaimed “explorer”, Dr. Richard Feynman, made it possible to bring out the real cause of the accident.
Feynman noted that he did not discover the solution alone. He was used by certain unknown insiders from NASA who wanted to get the truth out, but had no credible way to do it on their own. Feynman’s presence on the investigatory panel made an exchange between these insiders and a truth seeker possible. What amazes me is how tenuous this connection was! How fragile! And how close we came to NOT learning the truth.
Lesson to be learned: Solutions to problems do not spontaneously generate. Human interest creates invisible barriers to making the truth obvious. Better connections break down those barriers faster.
Sorry! The above is a bit abstract. How about this? We accept the idea that markets facilitate the exchange of goods and services. At least, I do. Think of goods and services as solutions that are already produced for sale. It is expensive to produce these solutions. Moreover, the livelihoods of many depend on their continued sale (market share). So it is not a huge surprise that those who have made these investments and need these results would over-sell the practical value of the solutions that are currently for sale (the status quo) and may even try to slow down the development of better thinking. In other words, markets for goods and services — even totally free markets — do not necessarily maximize the rate of learning and innovation.
This is where we are now. But it is not the best we can do. We can — and need to — do better in order to address the challenges of this new century. We do this by building problem solving capacity (as opposed to solution buying capacity).
We might see this in a market framework. We need better tools to facilitate a new sort of market exchange. This is marketplace for ideas before those ideas are packaged and there from ossified into canned solutions. That is what platforming is all about.