Time For A Puerto Rico X Prize

By: John Shepler

The hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico presents one of the worst humanitarian crises in memory and, perhaps, one of the greatest opportunities to improve our world through technology we’ve ever been offered. How is this possible?

One Disaster, Two Unique Needs
Puerto Rico actually represents two distinct disaster response situations with different requirements. The first is the urgent need for search and rescue along with resupply of life critical food, water, medicine, and emergency power and communications. Time is of the essence, as the initial casualties will be multiplied when disease and starvation take hold. We look to first responders and the renowned capabilities of the military to stabilize this situation.

Hurricane Destruction — Photo Courtesy of FEMA

The second response, and the unique opportunities it presents, comes after everyone is fed, sheltered and beginning to think about what comes next. One option is to simply bring in the bulldozers and carpenters and start putting things back the way they were. The challenges here are who is going to pay the heavy cost of reconstruction and how long will the replacements really last.

Why WE Need to Be Interested
The ugly truth, or inconvenient truth as Al Gore calls it, is that our world has changed and will continue to change through at least this century. The die is cast when it comes to carbon induced global warming. We are all going to feel the effects eventually, but right now island populations are at the highest risk of being wiped out repeatedly by hurricane winds, sea rise, storm surges, disappearance of fish species and so on.

Solar Power System Installation — Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

So, here’s the opportunity. Why continue to put up yesterday’s structures just to see them knocked down again and again and again? Instead, why not take this opportunity to turn Puerto Rico into a laboratory of new technology? That’s new technology for generating, storing and distributing electrical power without a vulnerable grid system that throws everyone into the dark with the big lines come down. That’s communications that don’t depend on bundles of copper wires or fiber swinging on telephone poles that snap in any high speed wind. That’s systems that locally dispense potable water from the sea or brackish ponds.

It goes on. How about drones that can deliver food and medicine autonomously to the countryside? How about off road transportation that doesn’t require gasoline? How about housing that can take the beating of a category 5 hurricane unscathed, yet is affordable in the Puerto Rican economy? Perhaps inexpensive dwellings built by concrete extruding robots that do their work and roll on to the next village.

3D Concrete House Printer Demonstration

Most Everything Needed Is Already Incubating
You get the idea. Everything I’ve mentioned and a lot more impressive technology has been prototyped and much of it is in limited production. Brilliant inventors without big corporate sponsors crowd-fund their ideas all the time to limited groups of excited supporters. Power packs that are also backpacks with solar panels, solar stoves that cook dinner in the wilderness, drones and balloons that are flying cell towers. There are hundreds, probably thousands of great ideas in the incubation stage that can make the world, and especially the less developed world, a better place. What they need is exposure. They need to be proven successful under real world conditions, and especially the most hostile of environments that nature can produce. In short, they need a chance to succeed and be seen as successful.

The opportunity to remake Puerto Rico, perfect the new tech products we need to transition to, and provide a launching pad for start-up companies that might otherwise wither and fade away before getting their big shot at success is just too compelling to ignore. The time is right to make this a win-win-win.

Google Project Loon for Delivering Wireless Internet — Photo Courtesy of Doug Coldwell on Wikimedia Commons

Could A Puerto Rico X Prize Make It Happen?
The question is how to get this all jump-started at a time when our government has little interest in climate science and even less in bailing out a bankrupt territory who’s collateral has been flattened. Perhaps the answer lies in the private sector. One model that has proven itself in spurring rapid advances in technology is the Ansari XPRIZE. The first challenge was to build a private spaceship capable of carrying 3 people twice in 2 weeks. Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne design won the $10 million award in 2004. Even more impressive, competing teams invested $100 million in the effort. No government funding was required.

Look what’s happened since. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is a major launch contractor for NASA, the US Military and commercial enterprises. Other private companies are competing for those NASA contracts and headed back to the Moon and, sooner than we expect, to Mars. In fact the major lunar landing efforts right now are centered around another XPRIZE, this one sponsored by Google. Multiple teams will return to the moon with cameras and rovers before April of next year. Once again, no government funding required.

The real opportunity in the dreadful disaster that is the island of Puerto Rico lies in private industry moving into this vacuum of infrastructure support to create on-site technology demonstrations that can expand into successful commercial products and services. Juice to get the excitement going could be provided by an X Prize sponsor or several. After that, let the best teams show the superiority of their solutions in a real world environment serving real citizens in need. The most successful will have more than bragging rights. They’ll have proven performance they can market in every country that is or will be affected by worsening natural disasters… and that’s pretty much every country on Earth.

With a background in engineering and communications, John Shepler is interested in what's going on in the world and how to make it a better place.

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