Apollo 13, MacGyver and ‘Resource Maximization’

Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, at 13:13 CST from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module upon which the Command Module depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.

Aploolo 13 duct tape
Credit: NASA

The astronauts of Apollo 13 had to do what they had to with limited resources, none of which were designed for the task at hand. But all the same, they made it work and gave us one of the great examples American ingenuity. It’s now time for this ingenuity to come home … home to our communities.

Forward to 2015

It’s July, 2015 and we are submersed right in the middle in of the abyss of useless junk otherwise known as the 2016 presidential election and all it’s irrelevant glory. Daily we get reports from the various campaign junkets. Hillary Clinton is stumping in some coffee house in New Hampshire. Jeb Bush is probably across the street trying to figure out how to duck and roll from inevitable questions concerning the debacle his brother and father caused in the Middle East … unsuccessfully so if I may say so myself. The rest of the inhabitants of the Republican circus bark their tired anti-Obama clichés as they rumble down the road.

Everything is about the game. The media discuss only a candidate’s ability to attract donors or at best what a candidate might want to do if god help us, they get elected. But most of the time, we don’t even hear that. The best we can hope for is some sort of soundbite on their views of a current event or disaster the media deems worthy of throwing in our face ad nauseam. There is zero fourth estate critical discussion and analysis. Only a secured seat on the Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz campaign plane matters. Fear of ruffling a feather reigns supreme at risk of getting kicked to back of the bus or worse yet out the door.

But regardless of who the American people deem worthy or least repulsive, the effects of their decision aren’t likely to have much of an impact on public’s lives … regardless of what the media portrays. The real game is will be played on the state and local levels. The political shenanigans being played out at these levels will have a much large effect on the state of our communities and our wellbeing than anything happening in Washington. Under foot is a movement nationwide, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), designed to roll back just about any semblance of safety net this country has constructed. The targets on the front lines of this movement are state legislators and local elected officials. These are the people we don’t pay much attention to during our trips to the voting booth. Who we choose in these races is often an afterthought, with decisions probably being made according to strict adherence to party lines. And this is exactly what the right-wing austerity kings are banking on – literally.

Just a couple of week ago it was announced that mega donor oligarchs Charles and David Koch and Sheldon Aldenstein will join forces to push their 2016 agendas of political rape and pillage. Our state and local governments are in dire risk of being overtaken by this newly constructed joint machine of conservative influence and mayhem.

Unfortunately, even if the other side had an answer to this unbridled assault on all things for the common good – they seem powerless to do anything about it. However well intended the Democrats, liberals or progressives may be, their ability to counter the organizational and monetary prowess of this malignant metastization is nill. This is especially the case in many areas where the push back is needed most. Urban progressive and liberal strongholds are holding their own and in many cases, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, making inroads (i.e. minimum wage legislation). But much of the rest of the country, such as the midwest and former labor hubs like Wisconsin and Michigan, is going just the opposite direction. And the ones politically leading this middle class deconstruction are the exact ones who are leading the polls for the GOP presidential race, such as Koch brothers puppet Scott Walker of Wisconsin. If you are a pro ‘big government will fix all what ails’ type of person … you’re probably crying in your beer right now. If you find the money to pay for it. The future does not look bright for you and your idea of the American Dream fast becoming a distant memory.

‘We the People’ need a new strategy

I read an interesting piece few months ago by Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design. Catapult Design are designers, engineers, and educators working with forward-thinking organizations using technology as a means to drive social change. Their process features a human-centered approach to social challenges. The piece I read follows the same train of thought as the Apollo 13 example I used above, but only its metaphor is based on the ’80s TV show MacGyver. Below, according to Ms. Fleming, are MacGyver’s ‘four enablers of creativity’ or as I call it Resource Maximization – utilizing what you have to its fullest and not worrying about what you don’t have.

  • He is a do-er. It’s easy for teams to sidestep creativity when taking on a new endeavor by quibbling over objectives. Ambiguity is uncomfortable. MacGyver uses action to work through the ambiguity. He could sit and have a discussion about his options, or create a tradeoff matrix, but he chooses to learn by doing.
  • His resources are defined. One of the first things he does at the start of a design project is figure out what he knows and what he doesn’t know. He makes constraints. It’s a contrast to what we associate with creativity—which is blue-sky, free-thinking, no rules. But the lack of constraints, or lack of a creative process, is in fact a deterrent to producing innovative results.
  • His goal is clear and a deadline is imminent. For MacGyver, the bomb is always ticking down. He has a defined amount of time. Failure is not an option. It’s similar to that feeling you get the night before a deadline, when the creative adrenaline rushes in at 2 a.m. The pressure is necessary to drive action.
  • He doesn’t have to ask for permission. Imagine if MacGyver had to stop with 15 seconds left on the bomb ticker to get clearance to use a set of pliers. Creating an enabling environment—tools on hand, creative ‘places,’ ‘time’ for creativity, diversity in thought—is what helps him get the job done.

A community must maximize what it has … and not worry about what it doesn’t

Every community has an abundance of resources. To identify, uncover and ‘maximize’ these resources, is the trick. A top-notch web designer could be sitting in a high school English class. An unemployed electrician could be at home just be waiting for an opportunity to help his community rather spend another day sitting on the couch watching home improvement shows. A neighborhood card club might want to deliver homemade food to a shut-in rather play that hundredth hand of Pinochle. And the less we have, the more resourceful we need to be.

Indians have an expression called jugaad – meaning an innovative fix using few resources. While this thinking may conjure up the enterprising street merchant, the meaning is often used to signify creativity to make existing things work or to create new things with meager resources. The definition of our resources today is no longer those that we have been given or directly control, but those around us we can access. But this only works if we have the mindset to see it that way, and the resourcefulness to access it. We especially see this with the proliferation of the sharing economy.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the first alternative energy movement was taking hold.  Jimmy Carter’s investment tax credits and an energy crisis had created a new booming business. Everybody was talking solar energy.  At the time, when my Dad wasn’t teaching current events in high school, he was selling, talking and living solar energy.

There was this little town down the road from where we lived in North Dakota called Surrey.  They wanted to jump on the bandwagon and heat their new community swimming pool with solar.  My dad went out to look at the situation and give them a bid.  The problem was, Surrey only had about two thousand people and not much of a budget for anything, let alone a solar heated pool.

The consensus was to put several panels on a nearby roof and pump the heat to the pool.  Problem was … that solution cost two to three times more than they had.

Now the pool hadn’t been built yet and the only work done was the excavation for the new tennis courts next to it. Now what is a solar panel but just a way to collect the sun’s heat a send it where you need it.  And what is one of the hottest things we encounter in our daily lives? Asphalt! My Dad’s solution was to run PVC pipe under the tennis courts and circulate the pool water through it.  No solar panels, just asphalt. Surrey got it’s solar heated pool … and under budget.

Look at your community in different way … a way where YOU are the solution

“Imagine” … close your eyes and think about where you live – your neighborhood. What does it look like? Imagine walking the streets, looking at the broken playground at the elementary school down the block, the vacant lots riddled with weeds, the elderly woman outside the blue house that hasn’t been painted in years.

Imagine looking inside the local middle school where you know there are children that have fallen behind, and could catch up with just a little extra help – but won’t get it. And think about how they will probably drop out … forever handicapping their future.

You walk down Main Street. Remember when it was “the place” to go, whether you wanted a gift for your niece’s birthday, those few special grocery items or even that “once-a-month” night out. It’s not the same now. The Wal-Mart, Wall Street chain restaurants and big box stores have made those memories a distant thing of the past.

Everywhere, when you really think about it, you realize help is needed …everywhere. And everywhere there are opportunities to help, to make your community better. But in most cases, it’s only those that live in those communities, in the neighborhoods – who are the ones that can help.

Government isn’t going to help. Especially now, with dysfunction being in vogue. Resources available five years ago have, or are in danger of being severely cut. Schools are now more concerned about budgets than they are about children. Local beautification efforts, well – that’s a thing of the past. Food banks are full of patrons, but food on the shelves … not so much. Communities need help.

I’m not a libertarian or anti-government aid. I’m a realist though. To debate endlessly about what should be done by someone else is counterproductive if it isn’t likely to happen anyway. We can look at our circumstances two ways. We can reminisce and wish they were better, maybe like they used to be (or least how we thought they were). Or we can look at our ‘little worlds’ as opportunities, opportunities to do something, to make things better. We don’t have depend on someone else or some government to do it for us. Just grab the people around you, your friends and neighborhoods and ‘fix’ something in your community.

Your resources are everywhere. You just have to open those eyes you closed when you imagined what needed to be done. Now is the time to take examples from MacGyver and the heroes of Apollo 13, and even my Dad – take what we have … and ‘maximize’ it.

Now is time for our communities and the people in them to come together – and instead waiting for help … help themselves!


If you haven’t, I invite you to start by delving into my ideas by reading the series, On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” This is my articulation of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues. Consider each week’s post a Mile Marker (MM), a cerebral off-ramp from the highway of your daily routine, taking a you little further down this road to a better version of society.


I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

One thought on “Apollo 13, MacGyver and ‘Resource Maximization’

  1. Clay, The advice you offer is good. However, someone has to step forward earlier than others and say “let’s get together and talk about this”. Depending on who the person is, and/or how persistent she is with her invitation, a group of people will begin to gather. I think this process can be energized if someone is, or has, created a knowledge base showing who the various stakeholders are in a geographic region who have a reason to be working together and/or sharing ideas and limited resources, in a joint effort to resolve a problem which caused the group to gather in the first place. Here’s an article I shared a couple years ago with the Chicago Tribune which points to the type of information and ideas that could be made available by intermediaries and used by everyone else. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-new-chicago-plan-some-suggestions.html Take a look at the 4-part strategy ideas. The process can, and should, be duplicated in many places.

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