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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

LIVING OUTSIDE THE BOX: Applying the Medici Effect Locally

Living Outside The Box with Joe J. Wallace

I was privileged this week to attend a seminar on creativity at USI, the subject of which was "The Medici Effect", a term used by author and speaker Frans Johansson who invited by USI to conduct this seminar to present a deliberate way of seeking innovative solutions to problems. This seminar was in no way about the predictable progress made by making minor incremental adjustments to a proven entity; this was about the intentional juxtaposition of leading edge thinkers for the purpose of creating breakthroughs and transformations.

The name "The Medici Effect" comes from the Medici family of Florence, Italy who intentionally brought leading edge thinkers of the world to Florence to establish it as a center of thought and culture to rival that of Rome. Some of the notable people who spent time in Florence with Medici patrons were Michelangelo, Galileo, and Donatello. The family Medici brought the works of Plato from Constantinople to Florence and established the Platonic Academy along with the largest library in Europe at that time. The Medici's literally nurtured the greatest thinkers of their age for the glory of family. The results were so transformational on a worldwide basis that the Medici's are now often referred to as "the Godfather's of the Renaissance".

As I have an interest in solving problems on a local scale my thoughts while hearing about all sorts of ways that cross disciplined groups have created breakthrough solutions in undreamed of ways, my mind drifted to some very local problems. In particular, I was pondering the question of first, how can the Evansville region preserve the wealth under our ground in the form of abundant deposits of coal, and secondly how can we repair our dysfunctional sewer system in a less expensive yet sustainable way. Make no mistake, if both of these solutions come from an Evansville region company, the wealth and lifestyle of this region will be expanded greatly. If these solutions come from elsewhere or not at all it will be more fowl air and less prosperity for this place that we call home.

Conservative societies suffer much more from an affliction that is typically called associative barriers. An associative barrier is an ingrained belief that repetitive experience is valued over thought and people can be categorized. We are all guilty to some extent of seeking the comfort that associative barriers give us. It is natural for the human brain to seek the path of least resistance. That path of least resistance is what causes us to call a plumber when the drain is clogged or a doctor when our arteries are clogged. These skills are trained and predictable and serve us well in most cases where a proven solution already exists.

What do we do when our economy is clogged? What do we do when the EPA tells us to repair our sewer system and the existing solutions require us to spend hundreds of millions of dollars that we do not have? What do we do when pending legislation has the potential to turn the coal beneath our surface unusable and essentially worthless? I would respectfully suggest that calling an economist, a civil engineering firm, or an organic chemist is not the right answer.

The solutions to these types of problems require transformational yet practical solutions. This means thought followed by more thought and then followed by action. The "thinkers" that will eventually come up with these breakthroughs are likely to come from out of the blue without the debilitating associative barriers that traditionalists typically have. Mr. Johansson spoke of an architect whose team studied how termites built a mound that stayed constantly at 87 degrees in a hostile climate to get the inspiration to design a building in the same way. The result is a building in Africa that is 90% more efficient that previous buildings. That is the transformational power of tossing associative barriers to the curb and expanding the mind through opening up to the creative power of divergent thought.

People with low associative barriers, connect ideas or concepts that have very little basis in past experience. Such ideas are often met with resistance and statements such as, "If this is such a good idea, someone else would have thought of it." But that is precisely what someone else would never have done, because the connection between the two concepts is not obvious and was not taught in their skills based training.

So, Evansville has two big problems both of which are in dire need of "outside of the box" solutions. As over 800 cities in America have the problems associated with Combined Sewer Systems. These 800 cities have all or will all be mandated by the EPA under the threat of fines to implement solutions to these problems. This is A HALF A TRILLION DOLLAR PROBLEM, with a guaranteed customer base.

The current estimate of the number of tons of coal in the United States by the National Academy of Sciences is 1,700 billion tons. In the future there WILL BE some legislation that will greatly devalue if not obsolete the value of this coal. Roughly 50 billion of those tons of coal are in the Evansville region. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Illinois basin coal is currently selling for about $48 per ton. That would make the coal reserves right here at today's prices have a value of $2,400,000,000,000 (2.4 Trillion).

So, what happens to the $2.4 Trillion of this natural wealth if a breakthrough alternative energy technology makes it worthless? I would submit that this natural wealth will have the same value as confederate money will when an energy breakthrough happens. The way to preserve this wealth for our region is to INVENT OR INNOVATE our way to a solution that does something with our coal that renders it useful and clean forever. Our coal reserves are this regions source of both jobs and wealth. It is our Fort Knox. If we do not do something about it our gold will be turning to dust.

In a panel discussion with the heads of Vectren, the Coalition for Economic Development, and two other leaders of the region the following question was asked. "What is the best example of collaborative innovation that is taking place in the Evansville region?" That question was met with a period of absolute silence. That silence is disturbing. We have plenty of problems, yet a hand-picked group who should be in the middle of seeking solutions went completely mute in the face of where the solutions were being worked on locally.

During prosperous times, it is easier to write checks than it is to use our minds to break barriers and seek solutions. Cash is not and has never been a substitute for innovative thought. In Florence, the Medici family stepped up and invested their wealth in bringing world class creative thinkers of all disciplines to their city and launched the Renaissance. Evansville, Indiana can and should have such a think tank of innovation mentality. If we can afford to spend $200 Million monuments to entertainment and to seriously consider spending $18 Million for little league baseball fields we can certainly afford to bring leading edge thinkers here to live. It is also possible that many good thinkers are already here and have an awareness of the problems that we are in need of solutions for. Creating an environment where creative people come to this place to solve just these two problems has the potential to generate $3 Trillion of wealth.

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