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When opportunity comes knocking, a tide of untrained opinion floods in

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News that the United States Office of Homeland Security (the Federal body established in the wake of 11 September), has been inundated by so many security ideas that their inventors are having to wait five weeks just for an acknowledgement, has prompted interest in the fate of ideas in the hands of governments for the first time since the end of the Cold War. In America, the Pentagon, too, has had to take on extra staff to help evaluate 12,000 ways to defeat terrorism sent in by the American public, and 'In-Q-Tel', the business venture fund backed by the CIA, is receiving nearly 200 business proposals a month along the same lines. Elsewhere, notably in the EU, there may be different priorities, but the same scouring of the pot of invention is going on nonetheless.

Of course, one must allow for duplication, as there always is in such circumstances. In the 19th century, there were universal government requests for proposals for escape-proof prisons, unsinkable battleships and quick-firing small arms, but much of the ingenuity deployed was frittered away trying to bypass key patents. By 1900, the emphasis had changed, with the largest prizes reserved for adventures such as the first successful heavier-than-air flight, the first heavier-than-air flight across the English Channel, and eventually the first across the Atlantic both ways.

In the 20th century, the tack changed again. In Britain, towards the end of the Second World War, more than 1,600 designs for prefabricated houses were submitted to the then Ministry of Works as a response to the announcement of an 'Emergency Factory-Made' housing programme. In the end, these 1,600 were winnowed down to less than a dozen types, of which only four were produced in any numbers - a disappointingly low success rate that is typical of any free-for-all where private citizens compete with established manufacturers with their own engineers.

The thing about these events is that they are not only open competitions in the established sense but also a low-cost trawl through occult or untrained opinion. Nonetheless, although little information has been released on the American proposals, it would be very surprising if a good number of them did not come from the High-Tech wing of the architectural profession.

Certainly the 1975 Mountbatten Report on 'escape-proof prisons' contained much architectural evidence in addition to the surprising quantity of amateur nonsense it took on board. See, for example, the farcical suggestion that prison bars should be made of glass tubes filled with indelible dye so that any convict who escaped by breaking them would turn red or blue and be instantly recognisable.

Three years before the Mountbatten Report on prisons was published, there was a request for proposals from Chile, where a beleaguered Unidad Popular government - whose most memorable slogan was 'Casa o muerte!' (houses or death) - was desperately trying to build houses without money. In 1972, the government held a conference on the housing problem that was attended by architects, system builders and housing fanatics from all over the world. At that time, the Chilean government's fiveyear plan called for 400,000 units per year by the end of this period, and the foreign experts were there to explain how it could be done.

Like the US government 30 years later, Unidad Popular was bombarded with suggestions, but in the end, the amateurs and fanatics - including one who proposed using bottles instead of bricks and converting car body panels into cladding for houses - were forced to give way to hard-nosed Cuban government representatives promoting a large production plant for an East German concrete panel system, which had originally been supplied to Cuba as part of a Soviet aid programme.

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