It is an understatement to say the impact of the tsunami in South Asia and East Africa has been horrific. I have spoken to a number people both in CA and MA, as well as of course individuals in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand, who have been impacted personally. The magnitude of pain is palpable. Yet like any major disruption, it is our responsibility to see to it that the pain, in the end, is outpaced by the action to support and improve.
While in Northern California earlier this week in a chat with the always sage Flora Ganzler, she asked: "What are the opportunities you see?" Thinking like the master teacher she is, she wanted to know what we can do now, as a direct result of the disaster, that we could not do before. The question raises the thinking of William McDonough and Michael Braungart's Cradle to Cradle -- i.e how can what remains from one event or system be used as nourishing fuel for the next?
The disaster represents at least three opportunities.
The first two, a detection system and the infrastructure to act on it, have received the most attention thus far. They are necessary, but like the related goal of a health crisis response infrastructure, they are insufficient in that they only clean up from this event and prepare for the next.
The third, and perhaps the greatest, opportunity is to reinvent the local economies and their underlying infrastructure. Following the immediate health concerns, the major crisis will be a lack of meaningful economic activity for all those displaced, as well as the interrelated adjacent economies. Right now there is a window, and likely the capital, to lift up a 1500+50-mile radius with the world's current best effort at revitalization.
Just like post-war Japan and Germany or post-bloc Estonia, there is an opportunity to leap frog using materials, technologies and practices currently available planet-wide. Here in Cambridge, I can imagine teams of urban planners and landscape architects from the Design School together with participants from Engineering, Public Health, the Business School and others working with local officials and residents on the new world they want to design.
Money is fine (Harvard is matching contributions from faculty and students here). Doing something is better. The surest way to ease grief is to create something new with others.