I was fascinated to read how silliness and puns energized the people of Somerville, Massachusetts to solve a common problem — and it made me wonder about whether home-grown humor could to save the world from everything else that threatens it.
A grate idea in Somerville
Here’s Boston Globe writer Steve Annear on how Somerville engaged its residents to solve a common problem: street flooding from clogged storm drains:
In partnership with the Mystic River Watershed Association, Somerville officials recently announced a new initiative where people and businesses can “adopt” storm drains in their neighborhoods (think: Adopt-a-Hydrant), making them responsible for cleaning, clearing, and tending to the catch basins before and after big storms and weather events to mitigate flooding.
But to sweeten the deal — because let’s be honest, getting tricked into cleaning junk out of a drain for free sounds a little Tom Sawyer-y — they left it up to new storm drain parents to name their sewer children whatever they’d like.
In the first few weeks since the rollout, it appears residents have been quick to sign up for that opportunity — and they’ve been laying the puns on thick.
Wondering what people named their drains? Here’s a partial list:
“Drain The Rock Johnson”
“You’re So Drain”
“Insane in the Mem Drain”
“If I Only Had a Drain”
“Good Will Draining”
“Pennywise Vacation Home”
“Pinky and the Drain”
No sign yet of Drainy McDrainFace, but I’m sure it’s coming.
You name it, you own it
What I love most about this (well, aside from the horrible puns, which are awesome just for themselves), is that Somerville has taken some very unlovable public infrastructure with a problem and energized its citizens to solve the problem.
You can bet that a high-minded “adopt a drain and help your town” program would have been a failure. But give people the chance to shovel leaves and debris out of Purple (D)rain, Stormy Drain-iels, and Grate Expectations and they’ll feel a sense of ownership — and a chance to show off their wit, of course.
There are lots of other challenges that are hard to solve because they require the collective action of lots of individuals. Could you fund the kids’ chairs in your local school by allowing people to bid on naming rights for them (Chair of the Dog, Activated Chaircoal, Chairitable Donation)? How much would you bid to be able to rename your local town’s Dump/Hazardous Waste Transfer Station to something punny for a month?
I admit it: my imagination is not big enough to figure out how to apply this technique to global warming, political polarization, deforestation, or the world’s other biggest problems. But I can’t help thinking that engaging people’s wit to and sense of ownership, with a little touch of social media showing off, might work better than moralizing, demonizing, taxing, or bombing. A meme is a terrible thing to waste.
I look forward to reading your creative ideas on how to save the world with puns.