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Creating New Lenses, Asking Different Questions

In 2004 the inventor Saul Griffith, then young grad student at MIT, won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT prize, based in part on his invention of desktop device to manufacture inexpensive eyeglass lenses on demand. Griffith was motivated by a concern for underserved communities around the world. He was wondering how it might be possible to bypass the need for the usual costly practice of technicians grinding down lenses for individual prescriptions. Those traditional lenses were factory produced via a process requiring unique molds for each lens. With Griffith’s invention you’d have a cheap way to print out lenses on demand. The key question he was trying to answer was how might it be possible to create cheaper corrective lenses for people in underserved communities.

What Griffith realized, however, as reported in David Owen’s May 17, 2010 New Yorker article “The Inventor’s Dilemma,” was that there were other questions that superseded the importance of his own. The key question he found was not about how to make cheaper lenses, it was about how to get access to healthcare—including accurate eyeglass prescriptions—to individuals living in poor and underserved communities. It turned out that his cheap corrective lens question had been answered by low cost manufacturing in China and relatively low cost shipping. But what had not been answered was the question of how to provide individuals in third world or impoverished communities accurate corrective lens prescriptions.

“In effect, Griffith’s invention addressed a problem that had been solved years before, at lower cost, by Chinese labor and global shipping. The real problem with eyeglasses in the world isn’t making lenses, he told me; it’s testing eyes and writing prescriptions for people with little or no access to medical care—a matter of politics and economics rather than technology.”

There are a couple of lessons here relevant to the Interactivity Foundation’s discussion process.  First, Griffith’s experience reinforces the importance of casting a wide net when it comes to exploring and developing the diverse questions that we, as a society, might have to address regarding complex areas of social and political concern.  Questions are vital to the construction of meaningful policy responses. The questions we ask, and the ways that we frame these questions, will shape the kinds of answers we discover. So if we want to develop a range of contrasting policy possibilities, as we do in Interactivity Foundation projects, then we need to explore a range of questions, or a range of ways of framing these key questions, about an area of societal concern. As Saul Griffith came to recognize, it’s important to realize that the questions that may be first and foremost on our minds may not be the questions that others find themselves grappling with, especially when these others might have social situations quite different from our own. For our discussion process, it’s important to try to generate these questions from multiple points of view. Exploring questions about an area of concern from divergent points of view can help us discover alternative ways for our society to approach this area of concern.

Second, as Griffith realized, there are different kinds of questions. He was largely focused on answering a technological question—and then found that the technical question was superseded by political and economic questions. Of course, in Interactivity Foundation projects, we’ll leave technological questions aside. Our discussions are “political” discussions in the broadest sense of that term (we may discuss the political implications of a kind of technology, but we’ll leave the technical discussions for others). Still it’s vital for us to keep Griffith’s lesson in mind for our projects: there is never just one kind of question when it comes to complex areas of social and political concern. There are political questions, economic questions, moral questions, psychological questions, social and cultural questions, and many more besides.

If you tend to think that psychological or cultural perspectives are a bit of a stretch when it comes to public policy matters, just consider the reality Griffith confronted with donated eyeglasses in the third world. What happens when the right prescription glasses for a young man turn out to be donated pair of pink women’s glasses? Answer: he won’t ever wear them. And if people won’t wear them, you haven’t addressed the need.

All of these different kinds of questions offer different ways of framing the core concerns that public policy possibilities might address. They offer different lenses on an area of social and political concern. Remember, we’re dealing with human realities, and we humans are complicated beings. Human life involves all of these different kinds of factors interacting with one another in various ways. You really have to try to look through different lenses to make sense of it. You can’t use just one lens. To generate a range of diverse questions, we really need to look at the area of concern through the various lenses of these different perspectives.  We need to come up with different ways of framing the key questions and key kinds of questions that we, as a society, might need to answer.

–Jeff Prudhomme