Five Creative Solutions

Out-of-the box approaches to vexing problems, from raising cattle to choosing a president
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The National Popular Vote Compact

THE PROBLEM
Citizens want their votes to count equally, but the winner-take-all laws of the Electoral College system mean that swing-state voters have outsize clout.

THE SOLUTION
Use a strategy adapted from interstate lotteries to reengineer the system, without altering its foundation in the Constitution.

The invention of the scratch-off lottery ticket may soon enable the people of the United States to transform the Electoral College system and elect presidents by popular vote—without changing a word of the Constitution.

In 1966, John Koza—then a graduate student in computer science—created a board game called Consensus, in which players plotted out Electoral College strategies. Koza was responding to the politics of the era, marked by lawsuits challenging state requirements that electoral support go to the winner of the state’s popular vote. The game was too complicated and sold poorly (though one devotee was a young future electoral strategist named Mark Penn). By the 1970s, Koza had turned his attention to running a company that manufactured another of his ideas—the scratch-off lottery ticket—for state lottery commissions.

Then, during the 2004 election, he came upon a new way to play with the voting system. Barry Fadem, an attorney he had worked with on state lottery legislation, had gotten involved in a Colorado ballot measure to split electoral votes according to candidates’ shares of the popular vote. Koza had an epiphany: the same “interstate compacts” employed by states to coordinate lottery games could be used to replace the winner-take-all laws behind the Electoral College.

Koza’s plan, under the auspices of his National Popular Vote initiative, is elegant and audacious. Get state legislatures to agree to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the national, rather than the state, popular vote—much like how states contribute lottery revenues to a shared jackpot. Collect enough states to account for 270 electoral votes. And that’s it: while leaving the Electoral College intact on paper, you’ve just blown it up. New York signed on in April, joining nine other states and the District of Columbia. Together, they command 165 electoral votes. Support is bipartisan, since no states—red or blue—would be mere campaign afterthoughts.

“Most inventions aren’t usually out of the blue,” Koza says. “They’re combinations of two or three things that were fairly well known but then are combined in a new way.” That’s how to reinvent politics.

— Eric Liu, founder and CEO, Citizen University


MLB Instant Replay

THE PROBLEM
Baseball fans want a fail-safe against umpire mistakes—but a drawn-out video-review system like the NFL’s or the NBA’s would bog down the already slow-paced game.

THE SOLUTION
Create a centralized, high-tech instant-replay center to make faster calls using home-viewing technology, without pulling officials off the field.

When Major League Baseball created MLB Advanced Media in 2000 to establish its presence online, the league was so late to the Internet that it had to obtain the domain name MLB.com from a Philadelphia law firm, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. But the new company made rapid progress, with the insight that baseball fans—obsessive enough to follow a season with more than 2,000 games—would pay for the privilege to stream them, at ever higher speeds and definition. Soon, watching games from your desk at work gave you a better view than attending in person, and a decade later, MLB Advanced Media (a co-founder of Sports on Earth, with which I am affiliated) was bringing in more than $600 million a year.

Meanwhile, baseball was confronting another challenge of the digital age: lower tolerance for human error. Major League Baseball was the last professional sports league to introduce an instant-replay system, in 2008, and used video review only for home runs. After some high-profile umpire mistakes, fans pleaded for improvement. But in a game that already has pacing issues, stopping every inning or so to let umpires duck into a closed-circuit-TV booth—the method used in the NFL—wasn’t feasible.

Baseball executives formed a committee to come up with a better system, and discovered that, almost by accident, they already had. MLB Advanced Media “gave us everything we needed, in one room,” says Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who serves on the committee. Using the company’s camera and streaming technologies, in 2014 the league created a replay center in MLB Advanced Media’s Manhattan offices. Umpires now monitor ballparks across the country on dozens of high-definition screens, with technicians on hand to summon any angle at any speed. By the time a call is protested, the umpires have already started their review—and can make judgments more accurately, and minutes faster, than ever before. “When [an NFL] referee leaves and disappears under the hood, you lose a certain connection to the game,” La Russa says. With the replay center, nobody steps off the field.

The NFL has plans to replicate parts of the MLB’s system. Baseball’s idea for a new revenue stream that wouldn’t fundamentally change the game is now revolutionizing it: for once, the other sports leagues are playing catch-up.

— Will Leitch, contributing editor, New York; senior writer, Sports on Earth


Los Angeles Public Library/ High School

THE PROBLEM
(1) In an age when hardly anybody checks out books anymore, libraries are struggling to stay relevant. (2) A quarter of adults in Los Angeles never earned a high-school diploma.

THE SOLUTION
Turn the L.A. Public Library system into a high school.

In the digital age, no public library can afford to think of itself as a mere repository of material anymore, or even, for that matter, of information. That reality was at the front of John Szabo’s mind two years ago when he took over as the chief librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library system. One of Szabo’s biggest successes from his previous job, as the head of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library system in Georgia, was convincing county commissioners that by expanding a GED prep program at the library from 100 graduates to 542, he had effectively created a new high school. He realized that elected officials love nothing more than quantifiable results they can brag about, and that they will heap funding on programs that produce such results.

This year, Szabo is taking that concept even further in L.A., with the launch of a library-based program that will confer accredited high-school diplomas on city residents. While Szabo calls the GED “a wonderful thing,” many employers place more worth on a high-school diploma. Upwards of a quarter of adults ages 25 and over in Los Angeles never graduated from high school, and the rate can be as high as 60 or 70 percent in some neighborhoods served by the library system. Enrolled students will complete their courses through a certified online-education system, but will also be required to meet regularly with an academic coach and encouraged to take advantage of the library’s resources.

Szabo expects that voters and elected officials in Los Angeles will value the graduation numbers he hopes to deliver once the program gets under way this year with its first 150 students, and eventually expands. Those results could help make any future cuts to the library’s budget, like those imposed in 2010, at the height of the recession, unthinkable.

— Sommer Mathis, Editor, CityLab


Lab-Grown Hamburgers

THE PROBLEM
Raising cattle for meat is inefficient and contributes to climate change.

THE SOLUTION
Grow beef patties in a laboratory.

Mark Post never intended to make mouse burgers, but mice were what he had available. A vascular biologist in the Netherlands, Post was experimenting with mouse stem cells when he learned about the idea of culturing meat for human consumption. The technology to grow animal cells in a lab had been around for a while, and nasa-funded researchers had used tissue from goldfish to grow protein in vitro for astronauts. Post immediately thought that this approach could be used for more efficient and sustainable food production on Earth. So he started multiplying mouse stem cells into muscle cells. After a few years, he filled his petri dishes with cow cells.

Back in 1931, Winston Churchill prophesied, in an essay titled “Fifty Years Hence,” that “we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.” It took 83 years, not 50. But once Post transferred his expertise in cell cultures from mice to cows, he needed only a year and a half to put a completely lab-grown burger on the table. The patty is an aggregation of about 20,000 microscopic strips of muscle, each one-25th of an inch in diameter, arranged to contract (a process Post calls “microexercise”). This makes the fibers lean, not fatty. A journalist who tried the meat at its unveiling in London last year compared the experience to “biting into a biscuit.”

The first burgers were handmade in Post’s lab and cost $325,000 each, but he believes that within about 10 years he could mechanize production and get the price low enough to be competitive with that of “traditional” beef. The next barrier is cultural acceptance. “We still have a romantic idea of a cow,” Post says. Once he can scale up production enough to make cultured meat affordable, he will have to scale the process down to make it approachable. He imagines that cells could be biopsied from local cows, which people could visit and know by name. The sense of heritage would make the meat feel real.

James Hamblin, Atlantic senior editor


Raspberry Pi

THE PROBLEM
Modern computers are too complex—and expensive—to get kids interested in programming.

THE SOLUTION
Build a tiny, cheap circuit board (then watch as adult hackers use it for unexpected, and highly creative, solutions of their own).

As a schoolboy in the 1980s, Eben Upton was captivated by the BBC Micro, an 8-bit rudimentary computer. On it, he learned to write his first programs: 10 PRINT “I am the best” 20 GOTO 10, for example, sent i am the best shooting across the screen.

But as a computer-science lecturer at the University of Cambridge in 2006, Upton saw that his students lacked a gateway to hacking. Modern computers, he reckoned, had become too fancy, too expensive, and too automated to tinker with. “Maybe families have one PC, and there’s a reluctance to allow a child to experiment with it,” he told me. “You wouldn’t let a child take apart a car.”

So he and a few friends designed the Raspberry Pi—a tiny (three-inch-by-two-inch), cut-rate ($25–$35) uncased circuit board. A TV can serve as a screen. Plug in any old keyboard, and you’re ready to program on an open-source operating system such as Linux.

Upton thought he might sell a few thousand. But after the Pi debuted in 2012, do-it-yourself enthusiasts began snatching up the computers, programming them to operate everything from garage-door openers to gesture-detecting gloves for playing air guitar. Even noncoders have managed to use the Pi, as a Netflix hub. Upton estimates that 3 million people have bought one so far.

Among them is Mathias Wasserthal, a German software engineer who built WeggUp, an alarm clock that tracks his movements overnight and wakes him with gentle light at just the right time in his sleep cycle. To make it, he stripped away the top layer of his mattress and inserted an accelerometer, which he then hooked up to a Pi. “I often have ideas of products that would be pretty cool that you cannot buy anywhere,” Wasserthal told me.

Far from disappointed by the hacking of his creation, Upton says it’s “wonderful.” He was especially pleased when his Pi fame led to a meeting with the inventors of the BBC Micro. “For me, that was the nicest, geekiest thing.”

Olga Khazan, Atlantic associate editor


See The Atlantic’s 2014 Ideas Report, with dispatches from the Aspen Ideas Festival.

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