We humans are quite adept at leading ourselves to believe we have solved a problem perfectly, even when a hidden reality suggests otherwise. Quite simply, we don’t know what we don’t know.
History provides many examples of problems like this, and the true solutions have frequently resulted from interdisciplinary approaches. One of my favorite examples is the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854, and understanding it can help us even today.
Before humans discovered germs, it was believed that diseases like cholera and Black Death were caused by “bad air.” When a massive outbreak of cholera struck the Soho district of London, the disease was once again attributed to mysterious vapors of death.
A man named John Snow had an opposing theory that the cholera outbreak resulted from human waste finding its way into drinking water. Naturally, this idea was distasteful to the public (pun intended). Government officials refuted the theory because it would indicate a problem with the waste and water system.
So Snow set out with the tools of medicine, ethnography, geography, and design to prove his theory. After research and interviews, Snow discovered a correlation between cholera infections and the area surrounding the Broad Street water pump. To solve the problem, he ordered the handle of the water pump to be removed, rendering the well useless. The cholera outbreak subsided, and Snow is now credited as the founder of the field of epidemiology.
What we learn:
Reframing the goals of a project can have drastic impact on whether or not a problem is actually solved. If breathing clean air prevented cholera, then a perfectly legitimate solution to the goal of breathing clean air could have been a gas mask, invented seven years before the outbreak.
The actual problem, however, required goals contrary to the widely accepted and readily available knowledge of the era. Removing the handle from a water pump would have seemed like a bizarre or superstitious way to keep the “bad air” away. But it worked.
Snow shows us the value of spending significant time establishing proper goals before attempting to solve any given problem. With the correct approach, a solution may be as simple (and inexpensive) as removing a pump handle.