If You Build It, They Will Come: Learning and Expanding on What Our Fellow Humans, and Nature, Teach Us

I was a hoarder as a tyke, saving anything that could possibly be used for craft projects. One of my more “useful” inventions was a rotating necklace holder that I made out of a tennis ball canister. No wonder “The Genius of the Tinkerer,” a recent piece by Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal, struck a chord (for the record, my creations were never genius, though perhaps kid-cool). Adapted from Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, the article explored human ingenuity, stressing the value of sharing ideas in order to build on them.

As a tribute to that ingenuity, “[anthropologist] Stephen Jay Gould maintained an odd collection of sandals made from recycled automobile tires, purchased during his travels through the developing world,” writes Johnson. “But he also saw them as a metaphor for the patterns of innovation in the biological world. Nature’s innovations, too, rely on spare parts.” In other words, nature builds on what it has to work with, with results that we humans often consider remarkable—and also useful to our needs. The field of biomimicry is based on that concept: Researchers in the field study nature’s designs to apply to human engineering problems. From swimsuits to windmill blades, there’s eco-inspiration everywhere.
Of course, our environment also teaches us to “waste not.” To build its machinery, nature relies on “bottom-up” processes, whereby the final assembly is created from the fewest parts possible. In contrast, human manufacturing has typically involved “top-down” processes that can result in wasted material in the end. The twentieth century polymath Buckminster Fuller—referenced in Johnson’s article—was prescient in recognizing the value of scaled-down resources. “In the late 1920s…Fuller began designing a series of pre-fabricated homes to be built using as few materials as possible,” writes Jessica Leber in “Green Before His Time.”  “He firmly believed that we live on one interconnected world—‘spaceship earth’—as he called it, and that each individual’s success depends on the well-being of all its passengers.” It’s an aphorism Johnson alludes to in his WSJ piece. Indeed, another lesson we can learn from nature’s way of building on availability is the importance of sharing innovative ideas for the good of mankind rather than hoarding them like the blueprints for, say, tennis-ball-canister-necklace-holders…or other intellectual property. Keeping ideas under lock-and-key in R&D labs might make sense in some respects, but “they reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem,” writes Johnson.

 Around 1946, Buckminster Fuller modeled an entire community of “dwelling machines.” The model for these homes was re-fabricated in 2008. Patrick Hobgood, Iannis Kandyliaris, and Ilias Papageorgiou
Fortunately, some businesses are recognizing this. Johnson highlights Nike, which announced earlier this year a web-based Marketplace called GreenXchange, “where it has publicly released more than 400 of its patents that involve environmentally friendly materials or technologies…This makes it possible for outside firms to improve on those innovations, creating new value that Nike might ultimately be able to put to use itself in its own products,” or that other companies might use for their own ventures. As Johnson points out, a hypothetical scenario that GreenXchange invoked could be a mountain bike company learning how to make more sustainable tires by drawing on “an environmentally-sound rubber originally invented for use in running shoes.”
In the end, despite our proprietary instincts, “Ideas are works of bricolage,” writes Johnson. “They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas.” And just as nature uses what’s accessible in its environment, we should put our heads together to use what’s in ours—because really, don’t we all want to enjoy a smooth ride on Spaceship Earth?

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