Let's fabricate... digitally.

We're currently looking into ingenuity as part of our #smallthinking series. I got a firsthand experience of what ingenuity looks like yesterday, when I was privy to a tour of the Shopbot facility here in Durham, NC. I was excited to see what I thought was one machine, but what turned out to be several working units and some higher level concepts floating in the ether. The folks at Shopbot, including Ted Hall, the founder, are obsessed with details. They make sure they have the best quality rails, motors and electronics to run their super-cool digital fabrication machines. Partly, because clients clamor for them, but partly because Ted wants to make sure the machine runs well enough for his own use if nothing else. He really believes in the Shopbot mission which seems to be placing digital fabrication capabilities in the hands of people who might not otherwise be able to enter the category. So while some of their competitors charge MUCH more for comparable machines, Shopbot keeps putting out hi-test units at a fraction of the cost. There are currently about 7,000 or 8,000 machines in use across the country.

It's really cool to see these machines at work. They sound like Star Wars droids at work, but with much less sarcasm. Their movements are precise. I walked on the floor at the Durham facility with a notion of typical applications: wood, routers, furniture, signage, etc. Nothing too fancy. But Ted changed the trajectory of my thinking by placing these tools into the realm of digital fabrication. To him, digital fabrication is not about automating old ways of making things. It is really about finding completely new ways of making new products. Bringing ideas to life. For example, we saw a 5-axis machine that basically cuts out the tray you place your mini-pretzels on when you're in an airplane. Somebody has to make these things, right? The Shopbot enables the designer to build in certain features that would otherwise require two or more machines. Anyhow, think of this machine hooked up to a Kinect, so that anyone could carve out human figures with a few mouse clicks. Woah! That's a new way of getting something done.

So the inspiration I took away was to constantly look for news ways of doing things. Try them out. See what works. Keep asking " What if?" There's a lot of ingenuity going on in the Shopbot brain trust. A lot of "what if?" questions. And, it seems, a few answers to boot.

Virtues of Smaller Thinking Vol. 03: Ingenuity

Things happen for a reason. A common enough sentiment, but one that also holds much truth. In every endeavor we have a reason. In an ideal world, this reason is consistently tied to creating better ways of doing something whether it's growing an herb garden, serving inner-city youth or constructing a research methodology. In a not so ideal world (the one we live in), our raison d'être is the effort of at least looking for needed improvements in our world. In this, the third installment of our Virtues of Smaller Thinking, we will explore ingenuity and how it impacts our reaching the goals we've set.

We've established that ingenuity is the act of finding better ways of doing stuff. But how? What's the impact for ourselves? For others?

You might expect me to say that ingenuity begins with innovation or inspiration, but this is where ingenuity eventually points us. Ingenuity is harder, and is first about honesty. An altogether honest assessment of the condition of our being or the quality of an object under consideration. This is not the honesty of family reunions -- this is the brutal honesty of credit reports and blood pressure tests. In Shift, Peter Arnell tells us of his own reluctance to see himself as a 400 lb. man in favor of a more benign self-identification as merely a creative person, without all the baggage. He got past this with an unsettling realization -- his reality -- which led to a better way of living and his losing 250 pounds. Like Peter, only after we assess the subject at hand can we focus on how best to improve upon it and truly move into wider worlds of possibility. Without this candid conversation, we're probably having the wrong conversations as we move forward.

So how does this impact our work? Our processes? This is what we'll explore in more depth over the next few weeks, but know there's a good chance it might not always be pretty. We have to trust ourselves. Ingenuity can sometimes be found in fundamental changes in how we perceive ourselves and our outputs. In other words, something like epiphanies and bolts of lightning. A lot of the time, though, ingenuity manifests itself in lots of tiny revolutions as we constantly refine the way we do things. Constantly. These incremental improvements do add up and they do improve our lives. So keep your mind open to possibilities no matter where they lie. And never suppress the little voice that cries out "What if?" before hearing it out.

As for the impact of ingenuity, let's travel back in time for a moment. All the way back to the 15th century. The world is awakening from what we now call the Dark Ages. Feudal life is not a charmed one. There is no internet and no Facebook. Hell, there are hardly even any books -- and even these aren't available en masse. Along comes Johannes Gutenberg and his magical mechanical moving type. He found a better, faster way of printing books, most famously his 42-line Bible. Before his ingenuity took root, books took months or even years to transcribe by hand. Turns out, even though he changed the world, Gutenberg never became a Renaissance rock star because of his Bibles and Latin texts. He had to borrow money to keep his operations going and was even taken to court. But he persevered. And if we look closer his ingenuity produced a radical contribution to the world that continues to give.

Many folks trace everything in our modern world right back to Gutenberg's dingy workshop. Skyscrapers, VoIP, Gatorade and the combustion engine. Indeed, Mark Twain wrote, "What the world is today, good and bad, it owes to Gutenberg."

Movable type fed the awakening of Europe and subsequently the entire world. It helped bring about the Renaissance because texts were suddenly easier to distribute. Learning took off. On second thought, it was more like learning blasted off. Martin Luther's 95 Theses were printed and circulated widely due to Gutenberg's advancements and then eventually issued as broadsheets which led to the development of the newspaper. And now everything we know is doubled every 900 days. So while ingenuity spawned an original contribution in this instance it inspired many more to come, both directly and indirectly. Another way of saying ingenuity doesn't sleep.

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Let’s not forget to reuse.

If I were to take a wild guess about what will be the green-speak six months from now, I guess I'd say this. You know the whole phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." I feel like when the green movement was first getting momentum, it was all about recycling. It was about not throwing stuff in landfills or unnecessarily polluting. More recently, it's been about reducing... reducing the amount of oil we consume, electricity we use, bottled water we drink, and our carbon footprint. I think the next phase of the green movement will be about reuse. I think there's an efficiency argument that people are starting to make. Our office is in a 90 year old building that is one of the smallest LEED platinum buildings in the country. One of the reasons it's so green is because it's so old. The company that renovated our building believes the oldest buildings can be the greenest buildings because you can reuse so much of what's already there.

WIRED magazine published a controversial story awhile back that claimed driving a used SUV is more environmentally friendly than buying a brand new Prius for that very same reason. A few weeks ago, I came across a more lighthearted reuse idea.

The great thing about focusing on reuse is that it’s not about what you should buy or what to get rid of. It’s about making the most of what we already have.

Beware: Free comes with a price

There has been some healthy debate surrounding Chris Anderson’s latest book, Free. I’d like to join in and give the world a definitive answer regarding technology’s ultimate impact on the pricing of intellectual property but I left my crystal ball at the track. A not-so-subtle fact lost in this debate is that price is not the same thing as cost.

Every consumer decision - even those without a price attached - comes with a cost. Sometimes it’s time loss. Sometimes it’s a drop in status. Sometimes it’s a lack of convenience.  Sometimes, in the case of most free online services and applications, the cost is allowing yourself to be exposed to ads. Or having to deal with a lack-luster user experience, having to waste time digging for what you’re looking for. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, YouTube.)

There are thousands of free products and services available to the American consumer right now. Many won’t survive despite the to-good-to-be-true price.

Pricing models are important. But giving your product away doesn’t guarantee success. What’s more important is making sure the value of your product exceeds the costs to consumers (both monetary and otherwise).

Sometimes free costs too much.

Warning: Your brand may induce vomiting.

Okay, hopefully not vomiting. But maybe greed, arrogance or gluttony. A recent study reveals that children are more likely to share candy with others when they see Santa’s cap. Apparently it’s a symbol that promotes the spirit of kindness and generosity. The mere site of a Toys ‘r Us logo has the opposite effect.

The best brands actually help bring out our better selves. They have a purpose beyond simply making money. And they understand the need to shift marketing efforts from a consumption-model to a contribution-model.

Don't stop at asking yourself what you want your customer to do. Ask yourself what you think your brand can help them become.