Why Hollywood will succeed where BP has failed
As efforts to contain the Gulf spill appear to be on the brink of collapse, Costner’s Ocean Therapy device is going to be tested in real life conditions – monstrously larger than life conditions, actually. As a scientist or simply a logical human being can I affirm that the device will work? No, I can’t.
But I will.
Let’s fast-forward and imagine that indeed the device has been able to pump contaminated ocean water, separate the oil from the water and collect the oil. Drawing lessons from this unexpected rescue operation, what critical success factor will innovation gurus point at?
1. Simplicity. The device is nothing more than a giant vacuum cleaner that pumps the contaminated water, separates the oil from the water by centrifugal force, collects the oil in a vessel and returns the water to the see. Simplicity often creates a breakthrough where the current paradigm is only producing increasingly complex and unworkable solutions. Interestingly, the device turns the dispersing paradigm on its head: instead of dispersing oil, it is concentrating it.
2. No trade-off. While BP is spreading vast quantities of toxic chemical dispersants that (a) do not resolve the issue as oil remains in the sea water, (b) make things worse as far as marine wildlife is concerned, Ocean Therapy device removes the oil without adding any further contaminant. Innovators have a no trade-off mindset. They don’t settle for the lesser of two evils. They break through the trade-off barrier.
3. Prototyping. A few devices are ready to be tested. The simplicity of the device increases the chances of making further improvements and fine-tuning as we learn from the first trials. As we race against time to save the Gulf from the jaws of ecological death, the ability to rapidly turn around prototypes is key.
4. Making new with old. Vacuum cleaning is obviously not a new idea. Yet, nobody had thought of using it to pump oil from a spill.
5. A sense of urgency. No need to comment!
6. From the edges. This is a classic case of “problems cannot be solved by the minds who created them”. To come up with innovative solutions you need to get away from the core, move towards the edges of your field and make unexpected connections. As T.S. Kuhn highlights in The structure of scientific revolutions, scientists who create new paradigms do not belong to the core establishment, they come from the edges.
Ultimately, I say that Hollywood will succeed where BP has failed because it will make a story that is too great to be wasted. The making of Costner’s Waterworld was marred by natural disasters that sent the costs through the roof, and the film never made the expected box office success, resulting in a net loss of more than $100m. So the story is that of a Hollywood flop that inspired a handful of innovators to leverage a fictional failure to save an entire ecosystem from a real life disaster on a massive scale.
Too good not to come true.