Thursday, May 3, 2012

Of Wine, WiFi and a Way Forward

I am a person who rejects these four little words:

"It can't be done."

While I do occasionally spin my wheels trying to figure out how to cross a bridge that's just not there, for the most part, I have come to believe that human creativity, passion and good faith is a recipe for problem-solving.

So, when I think about solving the big, big problems facing our planet right now - whether it's the huge economic crisis, world hunger, the AIDS epidemic, climate change or whatever, I believe in outside-the-box thinking.  I believe in turning a problem over and over and over until it no longer even looks like the original problem.  Creative re-imagining.  That makes it easier to solve.

What do I mean by that?  Well, we all have ideas about how things can and will work - preconceived notions.  These preconceived notions act as mental blocks.  They get in our way of finding novel solutions.  To get around our preconceived notions, we have to change the way we look at a problem, so that it doesn't look like the "same old problem," so that our same old beliefs about solving the problem do not trigger.

So, you ask, how does one "turn a problem over and over until it no longer looks like the original problem"?  Have you ever said a word over and over so many times that it no longer held meaning for you?  It's something like that.  Only instead of stating the problem over and over again, you state the problem from a different angle.

Anthony Weston, a philosopher who's books I use when trying to teach outside-the-box thinking to my students and nonprofit clients, uses the example of a woman who will die if she does not get a particular medication, but the medication is so expensive that her family cannot afford it.  The husband goes to the pharmacist and pleas for his wife's life.  He offers everything he can scrape up, after selling all their worldly belongings, but it is not enough, and the pharmacy refuses to sell.  The husband's dilemma:  to steal the medicine or watch his wife die.

Most of my students immediately go to the preconceived choice set:  an ethical discussion about whether stealing might be permissible in this case.  Rather like the conversations we had about folks whose lives were washed away by Hurricane Katrina, and so took food from abandoned stores in order to feed their families.  Which is the greater bad?

But Weston points out that we are not actually stuck with this "either/or" choice.  When he's encouraged his students to think outside the box, they've come up with really novel solutions ranging from starting a nonprofit to make grants to people who cannot afford medication, to having the wife steal her own medication, and steal it as clumsily as possible, so that when she gets caught and goes to jail, she will receive the medical care she needs.  Prisoners get medical care at the state's expense!

Another exercise that helps people get creativethink outside the box:  how many uses can you come up with for a paperclip?  When I group students and ask them to tackle that question, we get great lists.  Groups might come up with 15 or even 50 ideas.  But that's it.  If I then ask them to rethink the paperclip, e.g. What if the paperclip is two feet tall?  What if the paperclip could float?  What if the paperclip could fly?  What if the paperclip were made out of rubber?  Suddenly their lists grow exponentially.  It's simply a matter of removing their self-imposed limitations.

There are some great folks out there already thinking outside the box on some of our most difficult problems.

Take, for example, microfinancing.  Somewhere along the way, some really creative folks got the idea that people could be helped out of poverty with very small loans - just enough to purchase something that they could resell for a profit, and then repeat the cycle until they had enough profit coming in that they no longer needed the loans to make their wholesale purchases.  However, traditional lending institutions do not lend money to indigent borrowers.  Traditional lending institutions have criteria for lending that significantly reduces risk, and so do not lend to folks who do not have either a lot of collateral or a history of repayment.  Into this void stepped nonprofit organizations like Accion International and Grameen Bank and others who offer small loans and business training to the poor.

Another example of out-of-the-box thinking at work:  I have become friends with the vintners at Peterson Winery, who produce a superb product, yet manage to keep their bottle prices lower than some of the other local wineries whose product is on par with theirs.  One of the ways they do that is to "sell futures" in their wine.  Faithful customers who trust the Petersons' wine making acumen are given the opportunity to buy Peterson wines in advance, at a discount.  This is happy for everyone.  The Petersons are, in effect, taking loans from their customers, free of interest, to cushion their operating costs until the wine is ready for purchase.  The customers get a bargain, not to mention interest-free money helps the Petersons keep their wine prices down.

What started me on this little out-of-the-box diatribe this morning?

Well, two great out-of-the-box ideas that make a big difference, from, showed up in my email this morning.

The first idea is a cross between the microfinancing banks and the Petersons' customer pre-funded purchases.  "Crediblesturns consumers into lenders, who in effect pre-fund their favorite slow food businesses, and then get their loans repaid in product. The difference between Credibles and Peterson Winery is that lenders may take repayment in product from any of the slow food businesses participating in the Credibles program.

The second is a really, really funny, very, very clever out-of-the-box solution, is a new idea for convincing Mexico's dog owners to pick up their dog's poo.  The parks agency has installed poo containers that, when the contents reach a certain weight, turn on free wi fi for the entire park.  This encourages not only dog owners, but others who want wi fi, to don a plastic glove and clean up the park!  Now I call that truly creative thinking.

No need to limit all this creativity to fixing the world, however.  If you think you might want to get better at creatively solving your own problems, I strongly suggest Anthony Weston's book, How to Re-imagine the World.   

And here's a video advertising Poo Wi Fi.  It's in Spanish, but never fear.  You will NOT need to understand the language to fully follow what's going on.  Enjoy!

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