Innovating from the Ground Up, and the Idea-Implementation Disconnect

solarpanelThe Ideas: (1) Instead of thinking about technological innovation that applies top-down (improving our cities, our institutions, our communities) what if we thought about such innovation at the personal level, bottom-up, the way nature does? (2) Why are we so inept at moving from brilliant ideas to ubiquitous delivery of solutions?

I have long been an advocate of bottom-up, front-line-focused, personalized solutions to business problems, because I’ve seen them work, and because I’ve seen imposed top-down one-size-fits-all management solutions continually fail. And I’ve proposed bottom-up, community-based solutions for our political, social and economic woes. Everything I’ve learned so far tells me that bigger-is-worse, that there are no economies of scale, that centralized is much less effective than decentralized, and that the people at the top of power and money elites are totally disinterested in solving real problems, and merely consumed with further increasing their power and wealth.

So if bottom-up problem-solving is the best answer for business, social, political and economic challenges, how about technological challenges?

I have mentioned my revelation at a recent wind energy conference where a large number of people seeking to become personally energy-independent overwhelmed one gentleman who wanted the state to set up more centralized, “efficient” wind farms for all, and how I, as a liberal accustomed to the role of the state in organizing things for the greater benefit, was at first ambivalent, but by the end of the day was won over by the self-interested. While I still believe innovation and technology need to be focused on solving basic human needs, I’ve begun to think that they might better solve those needs by looking at personal bottom-up solutions instead of institutionally-deployed ones. I’m even wondering whether community-based renewable energy co-ops are too centralized. No, I haven’t suddenly become a libertarian or a Dawkins selfish-gene adherent: Nature, in its technological design and innovation (look at birds’ wings and the thermal design of feathers), doesn’t use centralized solutions — animal communities are bound together by social imperatives, not shared technologies. Why should we be any different?

smartcar2Maybe we need to merge the great cradle-to-cradle design thinking of guys like Bill McDonough, who creates wonderful zero-waste designs for institutions, with the bottom-up, personalized approaches that I have advocated for business.

Here are some of the fragments of ideas that I’ve been kicking around since I contemplated this. Since I was thinking at the time about renewable energy, the End of Oil and global warming, that’s what most of these ideas are focused on:

What if solar energy collectors were designed to look like trees, not like flat panels — more surface area, better fit with the environment? Could they even be ‘grown’ using fractal patterns and crystal-forming ingredients?

What if hats were designed as personal solar energy collectors — instead of just protecting us from the sun’s rays, why not have them harvest them? What about hair, even, which again has more surface area. Could our shampoo double as an application of wireless nanotech energy collectors?

What if we could harvest our nervous energy, and the energy expended when we exercise? I’ve heard of PCs and flashlights powered by hand-crank devices. Why not PCs and TVs powered by foot pedals, or ergonomic bicycle-type devices under our desks? Deskwork and good exercise at the same time.

What if instead of heating and cooling whole buildings, we designed our clothing (the design of which now is, let’s face it, pretty useless, not nearly durable enough, and quite silly) to heat and cool our bodies? No more fighting over where to set the thermostat — we each set our own. And don’t tell me it would look geeky or restrict our movement — good design can solve that. Just use birds as models.

What if we merged the technologies of the Smart Car (lightweight materials, miniaturization) with the technologies of the recumbent bicycle, the electric scooter, and the Segway, to create a human-powered enclosed vehicle that would achieve highway speeds and give us good exercise while using no fuel whatsoever? Can’t be done? That’s what they told the Wrights.

What if we developed a toilet that produced fertilizer instead of sewage, and delivered it through the sprinkler system right to your garden?

Yes, I hear you saying that these aren’t new ideas, they’ve been tried, some are even being used as we speak. But how do we make them commercial, mainstream, available to and affordable by everyone? After all, millions of houses are still being built with wasteful, inefficient North American style hot water heaters instead of the long-coil European “instant hot water” heaters. If we’re going to save the world and stuff we can’t quit when people nod and say “good idea” — we need to commercialize it, make it better, experiment with real working models, and drive it out until everyone has one, so the need for the old technologies that these ideas replace — power plants, the electrical grid, furnaces, air conditioners, internal combustion engines, passive hot water tanks, toxic non-recyclable batteries, maybe even buildings (to the extent their primary function is to keep heat in, or out) — can be done away with.

What is the reason that so many bottom-up ideas and innovations never make it into the commercial marketplace? I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories that corporations deliberately buy up and suppress more durable inventions to keep them from cannibalizing their market. I think it’s more likely that people with good ideas are just disconnected from those with the skills and resources needed to implement those ideas. And vice versa — those with commercialization skills and resources are rewarded by the market (and by shareholders) for not fixing what ain’t broke, for not changing what they’re doing until and unless they have to. 

So on the one hand we have an astonishing and unprecedented flood of good ideas, made possible by the democratization of knowledge (the Internet etc.), and on the other hand we have this incredible inertia by those who could make those ideas reality, change everything. Not dissimilar to the paradox of our staggering surplus of cheap (thanks to subsidies) foods and medicines at the same time we have epidemics of hunger, malnutrition and disease. “It’s the distribution system”, some say. “It’s the lack of security and ethics in the areas of suffering” say others. “It’s the whole economic system, which is designed to artificially create scarcity to drive up demand and hence profits”, say others.

It’s time to stop excusing ourselves and blaming others for these disconnects. It’s time to stop amusing ourselves to death with fake-reality shows and the fate of some poor brain-dead woman in Florida. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. It’s a question of priorities, of combining energies, and of collaborating in a focused, informed and urgent manner to fix the disconnects and make it happen. We have a responsibility to make it happen. We certainly have the money, the ingenuity and the organizing technologies to make it happen, so what are we waiting for? We need to get past our learned helplessness and start talking to each other about things that matter, things we can fix, and enrolling ourselves to do so.

Are we just disorganized, or is our passivity, our inaction, our feelings of helplessness, are these things symptoms of something deeper, darker? Or is all this noise, this online cacophony, the sound of a billion revving engines just now shifting into gear?

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8 Responses to Innovating from the Ground Up, and the Idea-Implementation Disconnect

  1. Anna Pollock says:

    Just want to thankyou for the BEST birthday present – discovery of an intelligent, substantial (dripping with thought provoking ideas) web log. Love the solar hat idea. I’ll be back often and hopefully bearing more fruitful gifts next time. Don’t stop!

  2. This is an outstanding post, amoung great ones.I agree that the problem is a lack of energy on the part of people who could make this happen. But I would like to emphasize a point that you make — the problem is a lack of investment in doing the hard work of really implementing something. You make it sound like the investment is mostly one of time on the part of would-be implementors; but it is also a question of investing money and the investing the possibility of failure and ridicule.

  3. John H Coxon says:

    “What if instead of heating and cooling whole buildings, we designed our clothing to heat and cool our bodies?”I’m afraid it’s been done Dave, by your talented neighbors to the north, the Ihalmiut. Farley Mowat describes Ihalmiut clothing that could and often did function as the only “house” they really needed under extreme conditions in the far north. It’s been many many years since I read “People of the Deer,” but his description of how their “housing” worked never left me. One day I suspect the bottom-up innovation you describe will be a key to our survival as a species, re-united with our fellow travellers, the plants and animals, when we finally realize what a mess we’ve made.

  4. Greg Burton says:

    Another excellent post, Dave. And largely I agree with you. (are you waiting for my usual “however…..”? I knew you were :)You say “Are we just disorganized, or is our passivity, our inaction, our feelings of helplessness, are these things symptoms of something deeper, darker?” I’d argue on this point alone that there are powerful social and economic forces that drive social policy towards centralized solutions. Were there not, we’d probably have a far more decentralized and safer energy system running DC, and a more centralized transportation system with much more mass transit. In both cases the drive towards our current solutions was based on consolidating power and profits. I’m not making that as a political statement, though political ramifications abound – as far as I know, that’s a pretty fair statement of history.And of course, we can’t shame people out of their circuses, never have and never will. The trick, I think, is to make the circuses a little more meaningful….G

  5. Another problem is that our current capitalist system rewards profit-making ideas, many of which are also good ideas (many bad ones too), but many good ideas are just not that profitable, so they never see the light of day (while many crappy and wasteful ideas are produced every day).

  6. jeff says:

    Great post.I don’t think there’s a conspiracy necessarily (though individual conspiratorial acts take place).As a cultural anthropologist, I’ve come to think every human artifact has scale at which it was invented and deployed. Within a few improvement / innovation cycles, it’s set.The means of its production is also optimal at its right scale. The tools used to create to product (whether it’s tangible like a obsidian flake blade or laptop computer, or conceptual and abstract like a patent system or business franchising or an economic system) are optimized/evolved to produce output of sufficient quality at a small range of quantities. Go too high, quality collapses (Nordstrom stores trying to expand to too many cities too qucikly, losing the very thing that made them appealing, omnipresent and frictionless custo service) , go too low, the profitability fails (Red China’s futile experiemnt with backyard furnaces for household production of steel which removed all the environmental protection & produced terrible steel at low energy efficiency).On the abstract side, both capitalism and communism were highly functional economic systems in the context in which they developed and were polished: **in villages**. Both work beautifully in the realm in which they were invented. Start super-sizing them and the diseconomies of scale turn the magic that makes them work into toxic corruption. The technologies you talking about in this essay are profitable to make and sell. But they’re not profitable for Grumman or Lockheed or GE to make and they’re not particularly profitable for WalMart to sell. These giant producers and distributors aren’t going to look to Clivus Multrum composting toilets because there’s nothing profitable in it for them. So they will produce other products and big distributors and retailers will push them into the market.Markets become inefficient beyond the village level (accountability, scale, inter-responsibility). So your conclusion, bottom-up development, is one very sensible way around the diseconomies of scale. The challenge comes when the product “takes off” and people want to produce 100 times as many <name of thing>s. The temptation is to build 5 factories that produce 20x each, but the efficiencies get edged out in favour of scale and then it degenerates into labor-saving obsessions, pimping quality in components to feed the overhead of elephantiasis.So (finally…sorry, but much to think about in this essay) it’s equally important to think about how to consciously evolve (prevolve) the methods of production and distribution and maintenance and end-of-life disposal as it is to develop bottom-up products…the gravitational fields just tug it all towards the event horizon. It sounds pessimistic. I don’t mean it to be. I think it’s all quite do-able with knowledge management and with enduring willingness to steward the processes and to expunge the Commons-es that cause degeneration.Let’s start.

  7. Derek says:

    There’s a secret hiding under here that nobody asks: why are resources so cheap? Why are countries trying to sell as much as they can today of a material that’s non-renewable and only going to get more expensive over time?What if people with the oil & minerals wised up and raised the prices 1000X? I sure think that would solve a lot of problems. Right now its not worthwhile to spend $2,000 more on a water heater in order to save $450 over its lifetime.A few countries are wising up. Recently the price of steel ore went up 100% in a week when China steel mills got worried about supplies and realized that it was worthwhile to pay 2X just to avoid running out.The best thing is that we don’t have to do anything to create scarcity. Its all about perception. So how do we convince the countries with material resources that its in their best interests to hold on to what they have?

  8. lugon says:

    Ideas make their way into our brains. Cell-phones were for yuppies, now they are for more people. might be for yuppies now. We need the knowledge to be locally available in case of need. “In case of need” may already be here:

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