Monday, January 05, 2015

Public Private Partnerships

I have blogged before about my strong belief in open and fair markets and the right of entrepreneurs to develop products that customers want, regardless of whether they add to the world’s human or social capital.  But I have also wished there were more people interested in creating these more meaningful innovations.  We need them a lot more than we need the next Whats App or Snap Chat (link to one of my past posts).  Or the next high frequency hedge fund investing algorithms.

Nina Easton’s column (gated) in December issue of Fortune Magazine is a fantastic example.  Her column is about the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.  She talks about a confluence of factors that have come together in that region that points the way forward for probably many similar areas around the world.  Let me summarize her column and then add a few points of my own.

First the confluence of factors.  This area has been a perfect illustration of the challenges of climate change long before hurricane Katrina broadcast it so strongly to the world.  The Mississippi Delta is the fastest-disappearing land on the planet.  The wetlands in that area that support valuable (economically and environmentally) fisheries, bird nesting areas, and vegetation are now underwater.  The previous model of geoengineering used a blockade mentality, which probably made the situation worse in the long term.  Katrina exposed those myths. 

Another set of factors is that the region relies on industries that are in jeopardy.  How long will we have huge networks of oil refineries and drilling platforms dominating a region?  The BP oil spill warned us against that.  How long will we have such a focused launch point for goods trekked down the major rivers, transferred to container ships, and then sent around the world?  The increased use of digital goods, distributed 3D printing, and air-based delivery puts this in doubt.  And if the region is underwater, the point is moot anyway.

So what is the solution?   Nina’s column summarizes bi-partisan efforts to find real practical solutions  The Water Institute of the Gulf was founded by Republican Bobby Jindal, Democrat Mary Landrieu, a CEO who worked for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and has received funding through conservative and liberal special interest groups (as well as some of the BP oil spill settlement money). 

My Take

The Institute needs to look for agile, resilient, and reliable solutions.  As I have mentioned in other posts, these terms are often misused but the message is clear.  We can’t blockade storm surges and sea level rises, we need to work with them.  We need to use bend but not break strategies. We need to have flexible enough solutions that can mitigate the unexpected in emergency situations and be reconfigurable as we learn more about climate change in the long term.  It can’t get caught up in partisan politics or short term economic constraints. 

The Institute can also serve as a model of innovation for other regions facing complex combinations of massive socioeconomic and environmental challenges.  This is the change-the-world kind of innovation that we desperately need more of our best and brightest to dedicate their talents to. 

What other examples are out there?  What about areas faced with deforestation, infectious disease, territorial disputes, need for farmland, and general poverty?   What about an island that is faced with sinking into the ocean, population obesity, geopolitical conflict, political corruption, and under-education? 

I am not going to claim to have even the foggiest idea how to solve any of these global challenges.  But it is good to see that the Water Institute of the Gulf has found a model to at least start the process.  Now we need more talented innovators to join them, more of them around the world, and more political and social support to help them succeed.