This collection is adapted from the SolutionsU Pro Innovation in Action series on COVID-19. The series seeks to highlight some of the most powerful social change strategies being used around the world today in response to the global pandemic. Each collection highlights a social change "trimtab" based on Buckminster Fuller's metaphor to explain the power of a single individual to effect significant change. Fuller realized that the trim tab on a large ship’s rudder—really just a sliver of the whole rudder—induced the leverage that moved the entire rudder and thus turned an enormous ship. He applied this idea to individuals, whose small actions can in turn induce larger changes, and ultimately, significant social change and problem solving.
The three stories in this collection (see below) are about containing and mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Each story demonstrates the innovation trimtab "redirecting, reimagining, and repurposing." When confronted with the challenge of extreme limitation, the individuals in these stories avoided myopic thinking and looked at already existing human and physical resources through a new lens.
Read about how women across the country are redirecting individuals with hobby and professional sewing skills to make protective masks. In the words of Denise Voss, the head of the Inland Empire chapter of the American Sewing Guild “Sewers, we’ve always stepped up and done this thing … We’re made for this time. We’re happy to stay home and sew. And we all have stashes of fabric.” Even those who don’t sew are helping, such as the architect in New York who is organizing the distribution of the homemade masks. In the second story, learn how European countries are following the lead of some Asian countries in reimagining how to use smartphones and drones for contact tracing, and the potential privacy concerns associated with these efforts. Finally, read about how a multitude of spirits distillers are repurposing equipment—and their large supplies of ethanol—to manufacture hand sanitizer.
Click here for the original collection curated by Greg VanKirk.
Click here for more teaching collections on COVID-19.
Photo Credit: Scott Hansen, PSNS & IMF photographer
- Describe the range of people participating in this “sewing army,” and in what ways their work is similar to efforts supporting the country during WWII. What kinds of material are they using? Are they as effective as the N95 masks usually worn by health care workers? If not, why produce them? Break away from viewing resources, skills, activities and/or approaches with the original intended purpose in mind, and instead imagine how you might repurpose a resource, redirect knowledge or a skill set and/or reimagine an activity or an approach to help you effect change. Can you imagine other social change challenges that might be addressed by similarly redirecting the skills of lay people, as well as professionals?
- Articulate the tools many European countries—and possibly the US—are considering for contact tracing. How do they work, and how accurate are they? Evaluate the potential individual privacy risks and balance those risks against the potential public health rewards. Do you think it is possible or feasible to use such tools to address problems such as poverty, homelessness, the refugee crisis, or climate change? What limitations or constraints might you face in attempting to do so? How might those constraints lead to innovation?
- Summarize how distillers are modifying their production lines to produce hand sanitizer. Enumerate some of the challenges they face, both in terms of how the virus has impacted their business and from large distilleries. How might this repurposing of other types of industrial manufacturing be directed toward solving persistent social problems? Consider a problem you are passionate about helping solve and think of a relevant industry that might have a contribution to make to a potential solution.
- A broad range of actors, from hobbyist retirees to sewing shop owners to professional seamstresses are involved in this effort. With all of their shows cancelled, for example, the Minnesota Opera’s costume designers are stitching masks made from gowns sent by a local hospital. This nationwide program is similar to the “Victory Gardens” cultivated in WWII to allow more food to be sent to troops, or women making bullets for the military. The sewing army is essentially using everything they can source, from the above mentioned hospital gowns to quilting materials, drapes, even coffee filters. Although the masks are not as effective as the N95, they can still be somewhat effective and at least partially fill the huge deficit in supply. They can also be used to cover the N95 masks of health care workers so that the N95’s can be reused. Student answers to the last questions will vary, and the question lends itself to group discussion.
- The primary tools are apps that would use real-time phone location data that would track the movement of virus carriers and those they come into contact with. Typically, location data is aggregated and anonymized; in this instance, individuals would be identified and tracked. Italy is using drones to monitor the movement of citizens. Some of the technologies are more invasive than others; Israel directed Shin Bet—its version of the CIA—to actively track individual and access their phone records from the past to map their movements, and South Korea went so far as to use immigration, public transportation, and credit card records to track individuals. Taiwan and Singapore established “electronic fences” that alerted authorities when those quarantined left their homes, and Hong Kong forced people infected to wear electronic bracelets to track their movements, with the threat of heavy fines and even jail time for violating the order. On one hand, these are highly invasive measures that clearly threaten our normal standards of individual privacy. On the other hand, the data shows that the countries employing the most invasive technologies were also the most successful in battling COVID-19. Student answers will vary regarding the last questions, which again, lend themselves to small group discussion.
- Because ethanol is the key ingredient in hand sanitizer, distillers are uniquely equipped to switch production from consumable spirits to sanitizer. They have large supplies of ethanol and can relatively easily source the other ingredients—hydrogen peroxide, glycerin, and distilled water. There are still many challenges. For example, distillers are state-licensed to produce alcoholic spirits, but not licensed as industrial manufacturers, and waiving that rule required the intervention of Congress. There is also concern that if some of the giant multinational players—Anheuser-Busch, Seagrams, and others—enter this market, the small local distilleries will be put out of business, since making and selling bulk sanitizer is currently their only revenue stream. Student answers will vary with the last question, but if, for example, manufacturing concerns could be even temporarily transitioned to producing goods that address broad social ills, perhaps real progress could be made.