MH370 - possible routes

Flight MH370, The Greatest Search in History, & Social Labs

4 Questions Every Lab Should Ask Themselves

On March 8, 2014 Malaysian Airlines flight 370 disappeared. A routine flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, MH370 ceased communications and couldn’t be seen on radar. The disappearance of the flight led to the most expensive aviation hunt in history.

The challenge of finding MH370 has parallels to the challenge of finding solutions to complex social challenges.

It was determined that the plane had diverted from its course. A multi-national search began in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. Over time the search effort shifted to the Southern Indian Ocean. This effort involved radar information from 26 countries, ships, planes and submersibles from 14 countries.

The basic problem confronting searchers is that the search area is vast and far from land, while the plane is tiny. In all likelihood the plane is no longer intact but actually a debris field subject to winds and tides.

Even though the search for MH370 was the largest in history – involving more money, more countries and more effort expended, the search failed. The credibility of the search however stems from the scale of effort.

Decisions about where to focus the search, decisions about the scale of the search, caused uproar and were hotly debated. Political pressure to learn the fate of the plane drove the scale of the search. Had the Malaysian government sent a single plane out into the vastness of the ocean there would have been rioting on the streets. This is because a single plane would not represent a serious and credible effort to locate the plane.

This situation is akin to finding solutions to complex challenges. The potential search area is vast (the sum of all possible solution) and solutions are elusive. If we are seeking solutions to issues like climate change, public healthcare challenges or inequality then what does a credible search look like? Sending a “single plane” into a vast search area for a week is not a credible response.

Here are a list of some factors that go into a credible search:

1) How big is the search area?

If we can’t clearly draw some boundaries around the search domain, then it’s very hard to determine the scale of effort required. Where complex challenges are concerned drawing boundaries is very hard but necessary.

2) How many search agents can we launch?

How many “planes, ships, & submersibles” can we put out? How many eyeballs can we dedicate to the search?

3) What is the duration of the search?

The more search agents we can put out the greater area we can search. The duration of the search is linked to what we can put “up in the air” or “in the water”

4) How are we sharing information on search results?

The more actors involved in the search effort the greater the imperative to share the results of a search. If we don’t know that an area has been searched then we can’t eliminate dead-ends and areas where solutions don’t exist.

Of-course redundancy is not necessarily a bad thing (“we went back to an area previously searched and found something”) but it’s expensive.

Where social labs are concerned, being able to answer some of these questions give us some sense of the credibility of a search for solutions. A lab, any lab – scientific, technical, medical or social – is involved in a search for solutions across a particular domain.

Scientific and technical labs have the advantage of being able to clearly circumscribe a narrow domain and then focus deeply on that domain. Social challenges are not nearly as neat and simple to circumscribe. The “search area” if you like is vast and success requires a credible search strategy.