SAN JOSE -- I've got to admit that when I first heard of UnGrounded, it struck me as a supremely goofy idea. (Then again, so did eBay (EBAY) the first time I heard of it.)

Stick 130 or so braniacs on a jumbo jet, fly them with no Wi-Fi from San Francisco to London, and while they're up there have them cook up a few ideas to change the world.

But now, three months after the brainstorming barnstorm, and with a reunion of the brainiacs set for San Francisco this week, it's clear that this whole flight idea just might be headed somewhere. What's got me convinced?

Jen Padgett.

Padgett, executive director of Community Technology Alliance in San Jose, was among the airborne Einsteins, including a Silicon Valley delegation, who flew to London in June. She and her three-member team developed a plan to enlist backpackers and others to bring solar-powered digital hubs loaded with educational and other content to the most remote settlements in the world. The project would create local networks that ultimately would grow by connecting with other nearby local networks. And if you must know, Padgett wasn't so sure about this whole brainstorming-in-flight idea either. But she is also a convert.

"I think they were trying to accomplish a big goal, a big dream," Padgett says of British Airways, which sponsored the experiment and provided a 747 for good measure. "And it looks like it worked out."


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Besides the Padgett crew's idea, which is called Beacons in a Backpack, a handful of other ideas meant to raise the profile of science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM), took flight before the airliner landed in London. There was a mentoring idea for girls and women interested in STEMs. There was a mobile STEM lab that would roll through neighborhoods the way the Good Humor truck once did. And there were other notions you can find at ungroundedthinking.com.

The truth is that all of the ideas are early in their development.

"All these things are still being explored," Padgett says of the backpack plan's particulars. "I'm just giving you ideas."

But there are plenty of those, some furnished by fellow fliers and others furnished by fellow fliers' connections. Community Technology Alliance, which is now leading the beacons and backpack project, is relying on help from people in England and Ghana and Los Angeles and San Jose. The organization has received the donation of a backpack rigged up with a solar panel that will serve as a prototype for the program.

The idea is to load the pack with a "beacon" that will provide connectivity to a tablet packed with downloaded versions of sites such as Wikipedia, Khan Academy and other educational material. The beacon would also allow communication among wireless devices in a remote community. And while no specific locations have been selected, think Nepal, Mexico or even areas in the Appalachian Mountains or remote Alaska.

"The big idea, what we were charged with doing," Padgett says, "was really finding a way to engage our next generation of inventors and having them participate in the global economy."

The Beacons in a Backpack team figures having a digital network would allow those in remote places to look up and share information about farming and weather, for instance. Natural curiosity would lead adults and children to surf through educational material and spark greater discussions within and among towns and villages -- all of which is a worthy goal.

But as interesting as UnGrounded's latest ideas are, I'm still taken by the original idea, the one I initially thought was goofy. In fact, it's one-way innovation happens. Sometimes, you need to look at a problem in a different way. Or from a different place, even if that place is 35,000 feet above the Atlantic.

"On a plane, without wireless and without distractions, there is nowhere else to go," says John McDonald, British Airways' vice president of marketing for the Americas and an UnGrounded architect. "There is nowhere to get off halfway through and say, 'I've got to take a call or I've got to take a meeting.' "

It's a sad commentary that we've come to a place where you need to board a plane to find peace, but McDonald has a point. The plane was packed with doers, like Craig Newmark, the Craig of Craigslist, and Megan Smith of Google (GOOG) X -- the kind of people who can walk and write email at the same time. Rarely, McDonald says, do those who can't stop thinking about tomorrow find themselves with the luxury of concentrating for hours on the problem right in front of them.

The quality time helped build a broad network of thinkers who will gather again Wednesday in San Francisco to catch up and compare notes at the British Consulate. Padgett suspects the meet-up will mean another boost of brain power for the projects, similar to the flight itself.

"It was just like the best of the best ideas," she says, "because you're pulling from a knowledge base from all over the world."

And as the knowledge-pulling continues, so too does the hard work of paying the world back by turning the ideas into reality.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.