How Plants and Animals Can Prepare Us for the Next Big Disaster

Author Rafe Sagarin looks to the natural world for tips on how to plan for national emergencies

In his new book, Learning From the Octopus, Rafe Sagarin argues that we ought to look to nature for how to better protect ourselves from danger. (Paul Chinn / San Francisco Chronicle / Corbis)

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In the book, you also highlight DARPA, the Department of Defense’s agency for developing new technology for the military, as being particularly adaptable.

DARPA is a great example. Unlike the rest of the Department of Defense, which hires one or maybe two mega defense contractors to produce something, DARPA will send out challenges to anyone, like “Figure out if you can create a vehicle that will navigate a course autonomously. DARPA will give you a million- or two-million-dollar prize”—an amount that is practically nothing to the Department of Defense.

All of these university engineering groups go out and try to solve this problem. The thing that is neat about challenge-based problem solving is it rarely takes many resources. People want to solve problems.

Are there other examples of challenge-based problem solving that you find interesting?

There are video games that have been created by biologists. The biologists are trying to figure out how proteins can be folded in different configurations, which is an incredibly complex problem. So they created a video game where gamers online compete with one another to try to come up with the best configurations for proteins. That has been incredibly effective, with much faster results than any individual biology lab could come up with. There is virtually no incentive there except to beat your fellow gamers.

Anytime you are issuing these challenges, if you ask the right question, you are likely to get a range of responses, some of which will be very good, some of which will be completely surprising, and you’ll do it at a very low cost and in a very quick time frame.

How have people taken to your idea?

The security people were very hungry for new ideas. Biologists tend to be more skeptical. But I eventually amassed a large group of biologists who are really excited about these kinds of applications. To me, the most interesting people to work with are the practitioners—the first responders, the soldiers, air marshals, and Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I talk with these groups in various ways, and what I always find is the ones who have been closest to lethal-type situations are the ones who are the most adaptable. They had to do things that weren’t in the standard operating procedures because they got on the ground and quickly recognized that they were in a completely different kind of war and one that changed from tour to tour.

What evidence is there that organizations that incorporate biological lessons are more fortified against risks?

You never know until the risk hits. We have seen examples after big events where this kind of organic organization really works. Think about the boatlift out of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. It wasn’t some big organized thing. There was no plan in place that said if there is a massive catastrophe in Lower Manhattan, every boat owner who can take passengers should go down there. But it happened. As those boats started coming, the Coast Guard said, OK, we’ve got something here. We’re going to basically let these guys come in, get out of the way, facilitate as much as we can but not put up any barriers because we got to get these people out of here.


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