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How Communities are Saving Lives with Clever Ideas and Cleaner Air

We often hear that “necessity is the mother of invention”, so it is no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic – which upended, well, just about everything – set off a wave of innovation. Telehealth, mRNA vaccines, even outdoor “streatery” dining come to mind. One of the neatest inventions (in my mind) is a humble cardboard creation known as a “Corsi-Rosenthal box”.

Doug Hannah

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We often hear that “necessity is the mother of invention”, so it is no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic – which upended, well, just about everything – set off a wave of innovation. Telehealth, mRNA vaccines, even outdoor “streatery” dining come to mind. One of the neatest inventions (in my mind) is a humble cardboard creation known as a “Corsi-Rosenthal box”.

You can read more about this invention (and the work my team is doing to understand grassroots innovation during the pandemic) at this article in The Conversation. The short story, though, is that a Corsi-Rosenthal box is a cube made of four furnace filters and a fan, held together with duct tape. For about $80 in parts and 30 minutes of labor, you get a substitute for a $500 portable air purifier and a substantial boost to indoor air quality.

What’s really neat about this technology is that it wasn’t developed in a lab. It was invented, and then improved and produced, by a network of citizen innovators – engineers and everyday people working in their own homes, linked only by Facebook and Twitter.

So why does this technology matter?

The first part of this question is easy: When we breathe, we exhale virus-laden particles into the air. In a room with inadequate ventilation, contaminants build up, which risks exposing others and spreading airborne diseases. Adding filtration helps reduce this risk by removing contaminants from the air.

The second part of the answer is more subtle: many of our homes, offices, and classrooms weren’t built with adequate ventilation in mind. Indoor air quality is often abysmal. The challenge though is that portable air filters and building upgrades are expensive, which means that many of the people who are MOST at risk are the least likely to be able to make the upgrades required to stay safe. Corsi-Rosenthal boxes can help address this equity issue, by making cleaner air more accessible and more affordable.

Are they still important, now that mask mandates are winding down?

It’s easy to see how ventilation might not matter anymore, especially as case counts and hospitalizations are trending down. The problem with that logic is that we don’t know what is going to happen with Covid in the coming months. But even if we could wave a magic wand and do away with Covid, ventilation (and Corsi-Rosenthal boxes) are still likely to be helpful.

First, better ventilation can substitute (to a degree) for other layers of protection. Population health folks call this the “swiss cheese model”. None of the tools we have – masks, vaccines, ventilation, social distancing – are perfect. But, when they are layered together they can collectively provide a high degree of protection. That means that if you take one of those layers away, it makes sense to balance that by paying MORE attention to the other layers. So with masking on the downswing, improving ventilation is more important than ever.

Second, Covid is just one of many airborne health risks. The average person gets sick 2-4 times a year, and can spend weeks sick, uncomfortable, and unable to work. This number is higher the more time we spend in shared offices and classrooms. Beyond airborne diseases, we breathe stunning amounts of airborne particulates. While we often take this for granted, it actually has big impacts: poor air quality causes investors to make worse trades, reduces the speech quality of politicians, and shaves YEARS off global life expectancy. Better filtration – and low cost innovations like Corsi-Rosenthal boxes – can’t fix all of that. But it can certainly help.

Was this a one-off fluke, or might we expect other big innovations to come from the community?

The Corsi-Rosenthal box as just one of many grassroots innovations to come out of the pandemic. The past two years have also seen better masks, new food service models, and dozens of other life-saving technologies. All of these were created by ordinary people coming together to solve problems in their communities. And we can expect more of this in the future, as technologies like Slack, Facebook, Amazon Web Services, Thingiverse, and others make it easier and less costly to coordinate, iterate, and turn ideas into reality.

But there is an important caveat and lesson here as well, which is that not everyone has equal access to these tools. This has big impacts on who gets to invent things, and what gets invented. For example, we know that women are more likely to develop innovations related to womens’ health, but they still lag behind men in many fields. Similarly, entrepreneurship training programs are especially critical for minority entrepreneurs, who often otherwise lack the networks and opportunities to launch startups.

Overall, this means that if we really want to realize the power of grassroots communities, it isn’t enough to sit back and wait; we need to actively empower those communities with access to resources.

Doug Hannah is an assistant professor of Strategy & Innovation at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University, where he studies strategy, innovation, and entrepreneurship. He did his doctoral work at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, in the Management Science and Engineering Department at Stanford University, and subsequently worked at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies strategy and entrepreneurship in technology-based industries like solar, medical devices, and social media. These settings are challenging because they require constant innovation as well as collaboration, but require firms to interact within the context of substantial competitive and technological uncertainty. As a result, it's often unclear where opportunities lie and what must be done to capture them. He holds a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Dartmouth College and an M.S. Prior to his academic life, he co-founded an environmental advocacy group, the Big Green Bus, worked as an analyst at the Cadmus Group in Boston and as a Fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and enjoyed a stint on a wonderful farm in Lesotho.

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