Farmer as Creative

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It’s easy to think that science and engineering are devoid of an appreciation for aesthetics. We seem overly focused on results, with little interest in the human dimension of our creations. Indeed, that’s the stereotype; but like all stereotypes, it has very little basis in reality. People in technical fields are still people, and they can still appreciate beauty. Often, however, that beauty is found in different places, such as: in effective, efficient design; in elegant, simple solutions; and in clever and innovative responses (the sort that make you go “oh, that’s neat!”). In science and engineering, beauty is found in function first, then in form. It’s no use having something pretty if it doesn’t accomplish the goal…

This philosophy applies to farming, too. Having a pretty tool that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do isn’t much help. Joe Trumpey explored this idea, in an exhibition titled “Farmer as Creative,” which opened on October 21, hosted at the Work Gallery in Ann Arbor. He explored the many ways farmers design new tools and processes to accomplish tasks and achieve their broader goals, combining function and ethics to improve soil health or water quality, or breed sounder livestock lines.

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Accompanied by live music and delicious food, visitors wandered through the exhibit, exploring the many innovative ways farmers apply creativity to their craft. Dried plants and articles about farmers and their tools decorated the walls, and several tools had been set up for people to try. Tillers International, a nonprofit organization based in Scotts, MI, had a manual hay baler with plenty of hay (clever, farming out work to volunteers!). There was a rope making machine made from a hay rake and water pump parts, and people were encouraged to make their own jump ropes. Friends of mine have made rope by hand before and can attest just how frustrating and mind-numbing it is – this looked like a much easier method. There was also a corn sheller, which was very popular: there was plenty of dried corn to test it on, and the machine stripped the kernels off within seconds.

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Local fermented foods company The Brinery (“Stimulate Your Inner Economy!”) had a fermentation petting zoo, allowing people to see, touch, and smell their products at various stages. With food available in packages at the grocery store, it’s easy to forget where it comes from – and to miss out on fun new foods like sauerkraut and kimchi! There was a new design for a beehive, next to a traditional terracotta beehive. One display involved Native American farm implements, showing that this is a process that has gone on since farming itself was first invented.

The attendees were a diverse bunch: college students, farmers, wandering Ann Arbor residents drawn in by the music, and families with children. The tool demonstrations were a big hit with kids, who were more than happy to lend a hand on the enormous piles of corn and hay. Several farmers were on hand to talk about what they do and to explain the exhibits, and there were way more possibilities for exhibits than there was room available in the building. Articles on the walls described old tools being repurposed (an old plow being used as a berry planter), a portable “sugar shack” for making maple syrup, a calf being fitted with artificial legs, and farmers using oxen to plow fields.

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Farmers’ creativity spans more than new tools: it also includes development of new processes. From preservation methods like canning and fermentation, to a u-pick garden that prices vegetables by the peck, to community gardens sprouting up across the country, farmers are finding new business models and ways to reach their customers.

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There were many more innovative ideas than could be covered in this exhibit. Websites like Farm Show magazine and Farmhack.net (an open source community for resilient agriculture) collect new tools and processes so others can see and use them too. The displays of creativity shown here were truly impressive – definitely enough to make this engineer go “oh, that’s neat!” repeatedly! It’s easy to think that farming just involves putting seeds in the ground, watering occasionally, and then harvesting, but obviously it’s much more complicated than that. As Trumpey explains, “farmers are a tool savvy, process oriented, iteration aware, focused group of problem solvers.” Seeing this exhibit proved once again that efficient, effective design has its own beauty, and that you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate art in its myriad forms.

 

Cheers!

-H

Idea Generation Techniques

I’m working for an innovation consulting group now, so the question of where ideas come from has been on my mind lately. I’ve had some opportunities to see these methods formalized before, both in a conference I attended during college, and in a Design for Six Sigma course I took last year. In both these areas, it was emphasized that brainstorming is a really inefficient method for idea generation, once the process is actually quantified (usually in terms of ideas per minute). The human mind works best when it can generate connections between different concepts, and use those connections to make new ideas. So, these formalized methods try to help people generate new ideas by giving them a framework they can use to make those connections. Here are the methods:

 

Brutethink: forces you to see relationships between dissimilar things. This technique will encourage you to see ideas where none existed before.

1) Select a random word (nouns are best). Random words from unrelated contexts are a rich source of connection-making material. The best words are simple and familiar so you can easily visualize the objects they represent.

2) Identify things that are associated with your chosen word. What are its characteristics? What does it do? What does it contain? What words or actions come to mind?

3) Draw connections between your chosen word and its characteristics, and your challenge. Generate ideas from these connections. Develop concepts from your ideas.

For example: select a random word, like “tree”. Things associated with the word (and this is a partial list, of course): trunk, branches, roots, leaves, shade, rake leaves, grow, grain, vertical, needles, swing, prevents erosion, forest, fertilize, water, color, shape, height, colorful, pine cones, seeds, harvest, mill, etc. Then,  you can grab a word from that list and see how it inspires you in the problem you’re trying to solve.

 

Check Listing: starts with an existing situation and asks, through the use of action words, how you might modify the situation to make it different and better. Or, it can be used as a follow-up to brainstorming, to improve new ideas. Action words to try:

Adapt: What else is this like? What can be copied from something else? What other uses could it be adapted to?
Magnify: Add to it. More time, strength, height, width, duplicate, and exaggerate.
Modify: Change the color, shape, size, weight, texture, or energy source, etc.
Minimize: Subtract, split, condense, reduce, remove, lower, lighten, shrink.
Substitute: What or who else? A different part, ingredient, approach, or process
Rearrange: Interchange components, other patterns, layouts, sequences, direction, speed.
Reverse: Use opposites, transpose, reverse roles and actions.
Combine: Units, purposes, elements, components, ingredients.
Remove: Parts, processes, functions, elements, components.
Other Uses: Are there other functions or purposes to which this can be applied?

 

Double Reverse / Pain Storming: This creativity technique has us initially reverse our typical thinking, and identify ways to make the situation / challenge worse. Then, it asks us to reverse these ideas, to make things better. Hence, the name Double Reverse. So, if your process is running too slowly, think of ways it could be made to run even more slowly, then reverse those changes to speed it up again. Can any of those changes be applied to the current situation?

 

TRIZ: Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. A man named Genrich Altshuller, while studying Russian patents, noticed the same principles were used over and over again to solve similar problems. TRIZ is a compilation of the most effective solutions to technical problems, independent of industry.

This is a huge topic and I’ve only seen a small part of it. The tools available are Contradiction Table, Inventive Principles, Separation Principles, Problem Formulation, Ideality / Resources, Function Analysis, and Technology Evolution. Information on all these is available online.

Technical and Physical Contradictions: at the heart of many problems is a contradiction between two requirements. These contradictions can be either: technical, where alternative solutions improve one aspect of the design at the expense of another, or; physical, where the physical state of the object must be in two states at once. An example of a technical contradiction would be power vs. fuel consumption: when one goes up, the other must go down. An example of a physical contradiction would be car suspension: it should be hard, for good handling and control, but also soft, for a comfortable ride. Within each technical contradiction, there is at least one physical contradiction. The idea of using the TRIZ techniques is to avoid having to make these trade-offs by breaking the contradictions. Here is a website to use the technique: you select the type of technical contradiction you’re running into, and it returns principles or techniques to solve the issue.

In addition, to help solve physical contradictions, you can try using the Separation Principles, which are as follows:

1) Separation in Time: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent at different times.
2) Separation in Space: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent in different “spaces” or spatial orientation.
3) Separation in Scale: a parameter or element of a system is present or absent depending on the scale you view it at. Also, between parts of a system and the whole.

Again, TRIZ is a huge topic and could merit a post on its own. From what I’ve seen, it’s a tremendously powerful tool for idea generation and problem solving.

 

The key thing about idea generation is that creativity is a skill that can be developed with practice. Brainstorming is not the best technique to use, especially if you haven’t had much practice at it (want to get better? Pick a common object and spend five minutes thinking of as many common or off-the-wall uses for it as you can), so these techniques are a great way to jump-start the process and get you and your group thinking in new directions.

In addition, using these techniques forces you to spend a solid amount of time thinking about the problem, instead of spending two minutes on it and declaring it impossible. It does a lot to encourage you to really stretch your brain: have you really thought this through? Is that really the only way to solve the problem?

Have you used any of these techniques? Want to give them a try? Talk about a problem you’re trying to solve!

Cheers,

  • H