Longitude Funked

carousel_collage_0I was excited about the NESTA/BBC Longitude Prize announcement, partly because I’m working part time for the World Heritage Site Maritime Greenwich. This work includes encouraging challenge-based learning inspired by the heritage of Greenwich, with the idea that solving real problems and enquiring together about relevant and local topics is a great way to motivate children to learn. The Royal Museums Greenwich are celebrating the tercentenary of the Longitude solution this year in really creative and contemporary ways such as an exhibition called Longitude Punk’d.

I didn’t know much in advance of the Prize, and I had imagined some public debate around a broad range of problems to reach a shortlist. I thought it might examine the big global problems of social and ecological justice, through frames such as the Millennium Development Goals and the breaching of Planetary Boundaries. This would allow some really helpful debate and learning about how to maintain a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity between human wellbeing and a well functioning planetary system. I was a bit disappointed therefore to find ‘you decide’ meant ‘you vote’ for one out of six pre-decided options. It doesn’t seem to have provided much mediation for discussion before voting except six short films screened in a special Horizon programme. Philip Ball and others have also criticised this aspect, leading to accusations of being snooty and wanting to repress public engagement. But their point is that overly simplistic and superficial methods do not effectively engage the public. What’s needed is more thorough and well-supported dialogue between experts and empowered public groups.

As many have pointed out, the prize of £10 million is not really enough for a technology solution to be applied through all social and political complexities, and scaled up, to be truly effective. (It’s not really clear if that money is to be spent on the actual solution or just awarded to the person or organisation who develops it, as they haven’t yet worked out the criteria for how the Prize might be won.) So, as such it is really a science communication project. There is nothing wrong, and everything valuable about science communication, but is this the best way to spend £10 million on goals of raising awareness of innovation?

In their defence, NESTA and BBC do say that the six themes were very carefully chosen and the public were somewhat involved: “These initial ideas were subjected to multiple rounds of critical analysis and deliberation, working with over 100 scientists and academics across a variety of disciplines to review, question and comment on them. The public have also influenced the final choice by identifying the challenges that they think are the most important to solve in a series of focus groups across the UK.”

I am surprised that such a large number of academics would produce such an unbalanced set of topics. I’d guess then that the consulted experts were selected for their involvement in the range of topics already longlisted and, surely, being fairly specialist in areas such as health. I also think they have, as human beings, been unable to bracket out the emotional appeal of the human health stories such as paralysis alongside more fundamental problems, and have allowed these onto the shortlist. Alice Bell denounces the Prize as being more like The Hunger Games due to this emphasis on competition rather than dialogue.

The resulting six options do not suggest they have really considered:

  • which are the most systemically and globally serious problems
  • which can be most realistically tackled by a single or definable solution that can clearly justify a prize
  • which one most needs support because it is not already being helped by a similar challenge or investment
  • which six topics offer us a balance of topics so that any one final choice, whatever the public go for, would help provide a massively useful solution for the world.

The biggest imbalance is that three of the six are about specific aspects of human health, and two are about foundational aspects of human health (water, food). The most globally serious problems on this list are food, water and energy. On the one hand, as general problems, they are quite indivisible from one another. All of them are completely intertwined with each other (crops need water etc) and wrapped up in the industrial devastation of ecosystems and climate change (drought, crop diseases etc). On the other hand, all are so important and so in crisis that there are myriad solutions already out there to very specific aspects of industrial, agricultural and energy processes. For example, graphene can solve the problem of saline water filtration. What these are generally lacking is the political and corporate will to implement them at scale, in comparison with less sustainable and more risky solutions (nuclear power stations, for example) that do not take account of the fundamental instability that climate change is bringing. Rising sea levels increase frequency and severity of earthquakes. One big earthquake affecting Fukushima could cause a world-changing incident. And the list goes on, the risks of new technologies combined with growing critical instability. I’m not saying we should not consider technology, rather that we should really consider it. 

The problem of zero-carbon fuel for flight and other transport is already being tackled through the Virgin Earth Challenge, and support from many other investors. It might be that the Longitude Prize flight challenge focuses on aeronautic design of planes, making a good synergistic opportunity to work with Virgin. However, surely the real problem here is how to reduce flights. We must stop consumption of fossil fuels immediately, so by the time we have a less damaging solution we shouldn’t be flying more and more.

The framing of the problems does not consider the critical reality we face. For example, the food challenge assumes the population will be 9.1 billion in 2050, despite many scientists believing that drastic crop failures will reduce the population from its current level by then. 

As I have personal experience of caring regularly for a parent with fairly advanced dementia, this challenge interests me. I could respond emotionally to this and agree it’s the most important. It may win because of the mass of UK population affected, who don’t yet suffer from the rising food prices and water shortages that are partly causing unrest across the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe, or who don’t yet grasp the underlying causes and potential northward spread of these problems.

As it happens I did react emotionally to the framing of the dementia challenge, which will be to “develop intelligent, yet affordable technologies that revolutionises care for people with dementia enabling them to live truly independent lives”. I believe this shows a complete misunderstanding of dementia. After a certain stage, dementia sufferers just cannot live alone. With some dementias (almost as common as Alzheimers), the progress is very fast. Apathy sets in very quickly that makes it very hard for sufferers to have the will to do anything, and big flashing reminders to eat or take pills will soon start to fail. How can the cost of fancy gadgets deliver more value than human care, which also offers hugs, explanations, memories and much much more? 

This all said, I’m not really down on the Longitude Prize, just a bit disappointed. Besides, it’s making me think about what could be better. I’m fantasising now about an alternative Latitude Prize, with problems chosen, framed and defined by more interdisciplinary, ecological, socially-minded and radical thinkers, as well as democratic forums. In keeping with the two senses of the word ”latitude’ such a prize would be more horizontal in its decision making processes and allow for more freedom of thought.

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One response to “Longitude Funked

  1. This is an interesting and thoughtful piece Bridget. One of the things that I get annoyed about are projections based on assumptions eg continued population growth and the requirement for more food being produced. It seems clear to me that challenges are entrenched patriarchal values that obstruct or prevent women’s access to birth control and abortion, in the first place, and secondly, it’s the appalling levels of food waste that needs stemming! I feel that fueling anxieties about future lack is disingenuous. As for the category: ‘flight’, don’t get me started… It may, however, be a means of getting anthropogenic catastrophic climate change into the conversation.

    In any event I think that the concept of a competition for limited funds for particular ’causes’, is unhelpful and divisive. I like your idea of constructing a better version and I look forward to hearing more.

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