Social entrepreneurship at its best

19 May 2009


Just learned about the Bamboo Bike Studio in Red Hook, right in my own Brooklyn backyard. Basically, you pay $1000, most of which goes to fund a bike factory in Ghana, and you spend a weekend being guided through the process of building your own bamboo bike. From the story, I can’t help but think that this is an ideal fusion of design, DIY, business, sustainability, and philanthropy, with so many great stories wrapped up in one.

For starters, there’s the fact that cycling’s hot right now, especially given the economy and especially in NYC given the MTA’s impending service cuts and fare hikes (now mitigated, but still a factor). Then, there’s the appeal of DIY. For a large segment of the population, there’s nothing more satisfying than building something with your own hands. I’ve noticed this trend personally, through conversations in passing where people lately seem fascinated by the making aspects of my line of work: the woodworking, modelmaking, welding, etc. I think this is particularly true in a bad economy, where our white collar workforce suddenly has a Billy-Crystal-in-City-Slickers “I sell air” sort of moment. When the tangible output of your work consists of numbers in spreadsheets or bullets in Powerpoint docs, the subjective revaluing of a recession tends make your product feel as ephemeral as clouds. It’s the sort of thing that makes most people want to get their hands dirty and build something, whether that’s with a hammer and a tablesaw, or just a box of Legos.

Building a bike is the perfect outlet for this current cultural craving because it’s just challenging enough to be satisfying, but simple enough that you believe you can achieve it, and at the end you have a usable product. And not just a usable product, but one whose regular use can save you money, make you healthier, and make your feel good about your contribution to the planet.

You’ve also gained a skill, so while you’re paying your $1000 ostensibly for materials and charity, you’re also gaining knowledge that can be applied again and again. People love to interact with companies that teach them something (think Home Depot, Apple, etc.) and it inspires fierce loyalty. Not that many people will be repeat bike-builders, but they’ll recommend it to their friends.

I also love the idea of the connection between the African factory and the Brooklyn Studio. I’m sure it takes a Brooklyn newbie at least 10 times as long to build a bike as an African worker, but this only enhances the development of empathy. And that empathy strengthens the logical connection between the philanthropy and the business. My usual gripe with “socially responsible” business models is that the charity has nothing to do with the business. It’s just charity, and if that’s the case, why pay 10% more to a business to decide who to give it to when I could just keep my money and give it to a cause that matters to me? Those unfocused philanthropy programs don’t do much for a company’s brand value, and in my mind constitute a hugely wasted opportunity.

For me, this partnership between the Bamboo Bike Studio and the Bamboo Bike Project is a model for logically conceived philanthropy that can enhance a brand’s value while increasing attention towards an issue the company cares about.

via Daily Candy

How does the Met keep their sculptures so shiny?

14 May 2009

With a swiffer! P&G couldn’t make a better ad if they tried.

Seriously though, there was something really joyful about seeing this no nonsense woman assiduously dusting stone abs and bronze buttocks as though they were furniture in someone’s apartment. This is a joy example that doesn’t bear many of the typical signals of joyful aesthetics—saturated colors, cuteness, youth, play, or nostalgia. In fact, just the opposite, here is an instance of work, and not just any work, but manual labor often considered drudgery, seeming joyful. Why?

It hinges on the pleasurable disruption of expectations. The expectations here are unconscious, stemming from the conventions of a museum. In a museum, the boundary between art and viewer is a sacred line. We can look, but not touch. To see someone so matter-of-factly breaching such a barrier jars you out of your normal experience and diverts your attention.

So it’s a noticeable disruption, a departure from the ordinary. But why is it joyful? First, the idea of touching the sculptures is appealing, and it appeals to the unfiltered, tactile inner child in all of us. Children always seek to touch as part of their sensory experience, and it’s only as adults that we learn to control that desire. So watching someone touch the sculptures connects us to our own desire to do just that, and the sensation is something we imagine as pleasurable. (This is well-trod territory, cf. “Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” among others.) Second, there is the fact that most of us never think about the cleaning of the artworks in a museum. We assume that they must get cleaned, but that it’s probably done off-hours, at night with special high-tech cleaning instruments. So the second joyful aspect, beyond the breaking of the touch-barrier, is that it reveals something normally hidden to us, and reveals it to be contradictory to our assumptions. The revelation of hidden aspects of things is naturally pleasurable to us (think voyeurism, or The Discovery Channel) as it satisfies our natural curiosity.

But the kicker is the juxtaposition between the glossy, venerable sculpture and the mundane household cleaning tool with the faintly silly name. The swiffer is a complete oddity in a museum, and that contrast is ironic and enjoyable.

The best part of all this is how it then gets encoded into memory. I don’t think I’ll ever look at that sculpture again without imagining this matter-of-fact woman and her swiffer, and having a little smile at the memory. And I think the Met will always be a little more joyful now that I’ve had a funny little peek into its hidden side.

(Lack of) innovation at NASA

10 February 2009

Excellent video made by NASA engineers describing some of the barriers to innovation at NASA. As someone who has worked as an innovation consultant, this strikes me as a brilliant analysis of the most pervasive obstacles to innovation faced by many established companies: low tolerance for risk, siloing, hierarchical corporate cultures, overly complicated procedural requirements, and adverse incentives for management.

What is interesting is that many of these factors that inhibit innovation actually serve the organization well when it comes to performing its primary function – maintaining an existing product line or brand. With an established brand, you don’t want to take risks, so you reward management decisions that provide incremental growth and you implement complex procedures that help to weed out risky moves that might damage brand value. Hierarchical cultures place high value on experience over ideas, which ensures that tried and true methods will win out over more risky ones. This is what makes it so hard for established companies to innovate and why can they become vulnerable to smaller startups. The organizations most known for innovation have found ways to cultivate a counterculture within their midst, often by either hiving off separate divisions that have their own oversight and that function like startups (Apple, for example), or by giving employees paid time to work on their own ideas and projects (3M, Google).

Thanks, Dad, for sending this my way.