Connections: Tapping Our Hidden Superpowers

Sally Brown

Sally Brown
BioCycle January 2018, Vol. 59, No. 1, p. 63

What did you prefer in 2017 — Thor or Wonder Woman? Or are you an old fashioned superhero fan who is still loyal to Superman? After all, what could be better than a mild mannered reporter who can transform and fly faster than a speeding bullet? With the problems facing our nation and world these days it is very tempting to hope for a real life superhero to emerge and save us.

I recently attended the final National Academy of Sciences Keck Foundation Futures Initiative conference. This was the last of these meetings and all attendees had been to at least one of the previous Futures conferences. This time the questions were broader and the groups more diverse. We basically split into three topics: Environments and Ecosystems, Human Health and Medicine, and Human Technology Interfaces. My group included two nuclear physicists (one who also had a law degree from Harvard), one person who worked on brain imaging, and two composers whose work focuses on creating music from natural processes (links to these individual’s websites at in online edition of Connections).

Our initial goal was to help Puerto Rico devise a customized way to rebuild after the hurricane with a focus on energy, food, waste and water. Each of these categories came with answers in multiple sizes (see “One Size Does Not Fit All,” December 2017). And each answer not only impacted other categories but also impacted what the resulting households and communities would look and sound like. Lily, the director of the Laboratory for Computational Neurodiagnostics, knew of dynamic modeling programs that can delve into the interrelationships of sectors that are typically treated as independent. Seth, the nuclear physicist with the law degree, suggested that fiber optic conductivity could be the tool to enable local management of energy and water systems that operated on household, community and municipal levels.

Jonathan and Tim, the two composers, said that we could use all of this information to come up with a virtual reality of what each world would look and sound like. If diesel generators became the norm, for example, the sounds of Hector Lavoe and the Coquil native frogs would gradually dim under the noise from the generators. Our idea evolved into: “Informed Democracy: An Interactive Tool for Participatory Decision Making.” In other words, we have the ability to essentially make a virtual world that people on a community level could use to decide what they want their future to look like.

Power To The People

I left the meeting really inspired at what was possible — at the potential to bring power to the people both literally and figuratively. This is a case of using advanced technology to share information. The technologies that are chosen don’t need to be high tech. Quite the contrary. What is high tech is the means to disseminate information to a wide population to decide on systems, and then use a technology interface to have multiple systems work together. In other words, the options for water could include household or neighborhood rainwater collection and grey water reuse just as easily as desalinization. Energy could be rooftop and/or community solar or wind. The interface would show the relative costs and benefits of each alone or in combination. We have most of this information. We need to package it and make it accessible on a community scale.

The importance of and need for this concept has really hit home lately. We are faced both nationally and internationally with a crumbling or nonexistent infrastructure for energy, food, waste and water. The traditional force to fix that problem, at least in the U.S., has been the federal government. The ability of the feds to carry out large-scale projects seems to be on par with the level of confidence in the federal government. Take Puerto Rico — the original focus of our group. Large sections are expected to remain without power until between  March and May. Trust in the power company and the federal government does not run very high at this point.

NPR recently did a story on Vieques, an island off the coast of the main island in Puerto Rico (pop. 9,000). No power, in fact a generator operated by the power company hasn’t worked in a while. The hospital is operating out of tents. The island is accustomed to getting both water and power from Puerto Rico — not an appealing or reliable option at this point. The island is warm and sunny with an average rainfall of about 50 inches a year. If you assume that each house has about 1,000 feet of roof space and an 80 percent collection efficiency, that yields about 25,000 gallons of water/year/house, or about 68 gallons a day. With a typical person using about 45 gallons/day, it isn’t quite enough but it is a whole lot more than nothing. Combine that simple collection system, which has minimal infrastructure cost, with other supplemental systems — all integrated with a high tech platform — and life on Vieques just got a whole lot better.

Much of our focus for the future has been to identify silver bullet technologies (or to look for that superhero to save us). Much of the way that we have done things in the past has been to count on the government to provide our grid or structure. Perhaps the path of the future can involve information moving as fast or faster than silver bullets and reaching communities. We have the tools to let communities decide. This is a way to build a new grid based on grassroots.

It is worth considering the hidden superpowers in each of us, particularly as we work together in communities.  Let the silver bullet that transforms us be the harnessing of communication technologies that allows us to have community level superpowers  Think of the potential for a community app that can bring power and trust back to the people.  That might impress even the hard-core Marvel Comic book fans and make the world a much better place.

Sally Brown is a Research Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board. 


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