When journalist Mike Cassidy first heard of UnGrounded, “it struck me as a supremely goofy idea”, he says:
Stick 100 or so brainiacs on a jumbo jet, fly them with no Wi-Fi 6000 miles from San Francisco to London, “and while they’re up there have them cook up a few ideas to change the world.”
Now, three months later – with a reunion of the brainiacs – set for San Francisco this week, it’s clear that this whole flight idea just might be headed somewhere.
The person who convinced columnist Cassidy, of the San Jose Mercury News, is Jen Padgett, executive director of Community Technology Alliance in San Jose. She was among the “airborne Einsteins,” as Cassidy puts it, including a Silicon Valley delegation, who flew to London in June.
She and her three-member team developed a plan to enlist backpackers and others to bring solar-powered digital hubs loaded with educational and other content to the most remote settlements in the world.
The project, called Beacons in a Backpack, would create local networks that ultimately would grow by connecting with other nearby local networks. Padgett wasn’t so sure about this whole brainstorming-in-flight idea either, says Cassidy.
But she is also a convert.
“I think they were trying to accomplish a big goal, a big dream,” Padgett says of British Airways, which sponsored the experiment and provided the 747 . “And it looks like it worked out.”
A handful of other ideas meant to raise the profile of science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM), took flight before the airliner landed in London.
There was a mentoring idea for girls and women interested in STEMs. There was a mobile STEM lab that would roll through neighbourhoods the way the Good Humor truck once did. You can find other ideas at www.ungroundedthinking.com.
All of the ideas are of course early in their development.
Community Technology Alliance, now leading the beacons and backpack project, is relying on help from people in England and Ghana and Los Angeles and San Jose.
The organisation has received the donation of a backpack rigged up with a solar panel that will serve as a prototype for the programme.
The idea is to load the pack with a “beacon” that will provide connectivity to a tablet packed with downloaded versions of sites such as Wikipedia, Khan Academy and other educational material. The beacon would also allow communication among wireless devices in a remote community.
Cassidy says that as interesting as UnGrounded’s latest ideas are, “I’m still taken by the original idea, the one I initially thought was goofy. In fact, it’s one way innovation happens. “Sometimes, you need to look at a problem from a different place, even if that place is 35,000 feet above the Atlantic.”
John McDonald, British Airways’ vice president of marketing for the Americas and an UnGrounded architect, says, “On a plane, without wireless and without distractions, there is nowhere else to go. There is nowhere to get off halfway through and say, ‘I’ve got to take a call or I’ve got to take a meeting.’ ”
It’s a sad commentary that we’ve come to a place where you need to board a plane to find peace,says Cassidy but McDonald has a point.
The plane was packed with doers, like Craig Newmark, the Craig of Craigslist, and Megan Smith of Google (seen in video) — the kind of people who can walk and write email at the same time – but there was no Wifi for them either.
Padgett suspects the meet-up in San Francisco will mean another boost of brain power for the projects, similar to the flight itself.
By Noel Young