Seeking ‘Eureka!’ cries to solve environmental problems

By TALITHA TUKURA PAM

Capital News Service

LANSING — The state’s $1 million incentive for anyone who comes up with a new and innovative solution to prevent Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.is part of a trend in using cash incentives to crowdsource and solve natural resource problems.

For instance, Michigan State University recently sponsored a challenge to redesign water foundations. The winning team won $15,000.

“The students are innovative and energetic and we were very excited to support student team learning and effort through problem solving,” said Professor Joan Rose, an MSU expert in water quality and public health safety.

Another example: The Michigan Design Council has sponsored contests for K-12 students to develop products to better enjoy the state’s water and winter.

“So far we’ve been quite successful and have had very unique and sophisticated solutions to huge problems,” said Jeff De Boer, chair of the council. “Based on that, I do not doubt that anybody can come up with successful and creative solutions for the carp problem.”

“We depend on experts to solve our problems and are swayed by intelligence, but many of our answers are found in the simplest places,” De Boer said.

To help organize the carp challenge, the state spent about $300,000, to hire the Massachusetts-based global crowdsourcing firm InnoCentive. The contest and its rules will be announced in July and hosted on the InnoCentive website, said Tanya Baker, the deputy press secretary to Gov. Rick Snyder.

Since 2010, the federal government has spent more than $380 million battling invasive species like the Asian carp.

“Some of our biggest clients are the federal government and large corporations who look outside for ideas and talents to solve problems,” said John Elliot, the head of business development at InnoCentive.

“We have handled different challenges with the Bureau of Reclamation and the EPA, so we do have some experience with natural resource type challenges,” Elliot said.

NASA had been working on predicting solar flares for a long time and had consulted many experts, Elliot said. The agency launched a challenge, and the problem was solved by a radio technician in New Hampshire. By posting the question to a crowd, NASA improved solar flare prediction by 80 percent.

“Using a crowd is effective because you can literally tap a diverse global network of creative minds,” Elliot said.

The Roche pharmaceutical company ran a challenge with an incentive to solve a problem it had worked on for 15 years, he said. In less than 60 days it got two solutions that worked. The scope of the hundreds of submissions covered the entire scope of the company’s work over 15 years.

“If you think about the resources spent in 15 years for this problem in comparison to using a crowd and solving it in two months, there’s return on investment,” Elliot said.

The “Wisdom of the Crowd” by James Surowiecki explains that under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent and often smarter than the smartest people in them.

“Crowd wisdom generated by the knowledge and observations of citizens has been valuable for documenting environmental change,” said Steve Gray, an assistant professor in community sustainability at MSU.

In every crowd are insights, flashes of genius and ideas that will never be evident from job applications, resumes or consulting brochures, Gray said.

Crowd sources hinge on the model that every person is unique, despite varying academic and career qualifications.

Neil Kane, director of the MSU undergraduate entrepreneurship program, agrees. “Any and everybody has the potential to solve a question.”

The design council’s De Boer said a unified competition by the Great Lakes states might have been a better approach to crowd-sourcing the carp problem. “The fact that it crosses state lines but is launched by the state of Michigan might be perceived differently by other Great Lakes states.”

And finding a genius idea is only one side of the coin.

“Implementation will be difficult because that is when the hard work will have to start,” De Boer said.

The carp challenge isn’t the first time that resource agencies have resorted to crowds to tackle an invasive species.

The Burmese python arrived in North America through the pet trade in 1970. So far, it’s literally eaten its way through Florida’s Everglades, drastically changing the ecosystem.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission teamed up with the Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida to launch the 2016 Python Challenge, a follow-up to a2013 competition. The competition was open to groups and individuals for proposals to remove the Burmese python from the Everglades in return for cash prizes. Officials said the program created awareness of the problem and removed 106 pythons.

So money may help.

And so, too, might a good bath.

It was at a public bath that the ancient Greek inventor and mathematician Archimedes realized that the more his body sunk into the water, the more water he displaced and that water was an exact measure of his volume.

It was a discovery that enabled the king to check the purity of his gold.

Archimedes supposedly jumped from the bath and yelled, “Eureka!” as he ran through the streets.

Whether someone with a carp cure will do likewise is yet to be seen.

Talitha Tukura Pam writes for Great Lakes Echo.