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 BLOG >> Design

Nothing Is Impossible [Design
Posted on February 8, 2018 @ 11:17:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Eliot Coleman, along with his wife Barbara Damrosch, own Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. They are both skilled growers with Eliot tending more to the vegetable side of the business and Barbara tending to the flower side of the business. They also write books for a living.

Eliot is well known as an innovator in season extension techniques and for designing new market gardening tools that have become standard market gardening tools (i.e., Tilther, Six-Row Seeder). I searched YouTube to see what Eliot was up to lately and enjoyed this recent keynote speech called Nothing Is Impossible.

Before Eliot, most growers would have thought it was fool hardy to try to grow vegetables commercially in Maine throughout the winter in unheated greenhouses. How was he able to accomplish this feat? Here are some of my answers based on this video.

1. Grit

You need a certain amount of grit, what Eliot calls stubbornness and persistence, to achieve an impossible goal or solve an impossible problem.

2. Competitiveness

One of the major motivations for Eliot to achieve the impossible was the desire to not lose his vegetable customers in the winter to California growers. You can be motivated to solve an impossible problem for many reasons, but keeping ahead of the competition is often a major source of motivation.

3. Problem is the solution

Permaculture founder Bill Mollison was fond of saying that the problem is the solution. Solving an impossible problem often requires looking at the problem as a solution to other problems. Growing veggies in winter solves the problems of market differentiation, better pricing, and pest control. Eliot is able to differentiate the produce he grows in winter from produce grown in California. His carrots, for example, benefit from being stored in the cold ground for awhile before they are harvested. They become sweeter and he is able to successfully market them as "candy carrots". Eliot is also able to price his produce higher if he is in the market with fresh veggies before other local growers. Over wintering crops or getting an early start makes this happen. Finally, growing crops in winter solves the problem of dealing with lots of insect pests that are only active in warmer temperatures. So part of solving an impossible problem is seeing aspects of the problem as the solution to other problems.

4. Practical inspiration

When we travel we often think of visiting art museums, beaches or other tourist sites. When Eliot travels he likes to visit hardware stores to see what they have that hardware stores in Maine don't. Eliot finds design inspiration in how other people solve practical problems although he probably has lots of theory to draw on as well. Eliot reminds us that another reason to visit distant places is not just to enjoy their tourist attractions but also to study the ways they solve practical problems. This might help you to see an impossible problem in a new light.

Another source of inspiration for solving impossible problems that Eliot does not mention is to study the lives of other animals and how they solve impossible problems. How is a caterpillar able to freeze rock solid but once it is warmed up it can go on about its business? How is a duck able to stay warm in a frigid pond? How is a queen bee able to maintain a sperm for several years from a one time mating episode with multiple drone bees? Humans need to freeze sperm to preserve it for that long.

One way to solve impossible problems is to see if nature has already solved a similar problem.

Partnering with inventors

Eliot has helped make Johnny Seeds (a 100% employee owned company) quite a bit of money from popular market gardening tools he helped to develop. Eliot developed early prototypes for new tools and then partnered with Johnny Seeds to manufacture and sell them. Eliot claims not to be making money of these inventions because he is primarily interested in seeing his ideas developed to the point of commercialization. I'm not sure if this type of partnering would work in other industries but it may be worth thinking about how you might partner with highly skilled people in your industry to help develop their ideas into commercial products. Rather then trying to invent things in-house, perhaps you can invest that time and money into identifying skilled practitioners and offer to support the development of their inventions to make life easier. It would be interesting to know more about how Johnny Seeds is able to benefit from Eliot Coleman's inventive mind.


Building Value [Design
Posted on November 24, 2017 @ 01:57:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Entrepreneurship is not a spectator sport. One of the main activities that entrepreneurs engage in is building. They build to solve problems on the way to achieving a goal.

One goal I finished addressing today was winterizing my green house. A section of the plastic on the roof ripped open in a windstorm so I eventually ended up replacing the full roof with hard plastic Tuftex panels - transparent on the south facing side, white on the north facing side (mostly because the cost of the transparent panels was double the cost of the opaque panels). These hard plastic panels added some needed rigidity to the building and I added gussets and braces to the worst walls to strengthen the walls and help ensure they don't flex and wander as much in the wind.

The green house winterizing project didn't end with the roof project as I had to figure out what to do with the screen window I leave open during the summer and fall (so it doesn't overheat). It is now time to close the window area in. Usually, I use plastic but this year I decided to re-purpose an old window and make it so that it is easier to open and close the window on an as-needed basis. Here is what I ended up building.

The purpose of this blog is to give a simple concrete example of what I mean by building value. Something similar has to be done on an ongoing basis to build anything of any value. As you keep building, the value of what you build keeps increasing and you may find yourself investing even more time, energy and capital into building value. Or you may just say it is good enough which is where I am at now on my greenhouse winterizing goal. Time to move onto solving the next problem.

Building is how entrepreneurs solve problems and add value. They build their way out of problems. I've heard several investors say that the reason they wouldn't invest in a project is because the entrepreneur was "not a builder".

Building isn't always about building something new. Most of my building has been fixing up something that currently exists so it looks or functions better. Building new stuff is more exciting, but fixing old stuff may be equally if not more important. Unfortunately, new stuff doesn't stay new for long.


Bottom Up Design [Design
Posted on June 1, 2017 @ 02:08:00 PM by Paul Meagher

This morning I spent some time googling designs for transporting bicycles as I will be confronted with that issue tomorrow. There were some good ideas for do-it-yourself bike carriers.

Before deciding on any design I decided to place my bikes in the back of my truck to see how they fit. Yesterday, I finally installed a metal carrier on the back of my truck that I intend to use for transporting lumber and kayaks. By chance, the position of the top metal railing is slightly above the top of the handle bars of the two bikes. Also, the handle bars of both bikes are roughly the same height of the ground.

This opens up the potential for a much simpler design than I've seen to date that takes advantage of these fortuitous circumstances. That design involves simply running 2x4 lumber from one railing to the other, using a couple of U-bolts to mount the 2x4 lumber to the railings, and then using some type of clip to mount the handles to the 2x4 lumber. After around an hour of working on it, this is what I finally came up with.

This little design episode reminds me that design should not be a top down exercise. It is definitely useful to get top down guidance by seeing how other people solved a similar problem but we should also do mock ups so that we can also get bottom up feedback on what might work. Sometimes the bottom up feedback is sufficiently good to suggest an opportunistic design that can solve the problem.

FYI: I used two 13cm rubber bungee cords to secure each bike handle to the pressure-treated 2x4. I removed an S clip from one side of the bungee cord so that I would have a hole to insert the remaining S clip into (forming a loop with one clip). So far the bike carrier appears to work ok. The bikes are very solidly in position and stayed in position when I took some sharp turns to test it out. It is easy to strap the bikes in and remove them. Hopefully there will only be minor wear on the handles from the rubber bungee cord and lumber holding them in place. I could install another beam and reverse the direction of a third bike to have it comfortably fit in the back of my truck. Bikes could be secured to the metal rail with a bike lock if that was a concern.


Design Thinking [Design
Posted on March 31, 2017 @ 09:03:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Tim Brown is the CEO of the design consultancy IDEO. This is a highly respected design consultancy that does design work for the biggest for-profit and non-profit organizations in the world. You have likely encountered the results of their work in your everyday life.

In 2009, Tim published a book called Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation that provided some insight into how they go about their work. Central to that work is what Tim refers to as Design Thinking and that term has become associated with this book. I acquired Tim's book when I started reading Lean UX: Designing Great Products with Agile Teams (2016, 2nd Ed.) and they gave this book significant credit for their approach. Also, Design Thinking is offered as a way innovative organizations might structure their work with many leading companies adopting some of his suggestions.

One of the shortcomings of some business writing on design is that is it not done by leading designers and can only offer limited insight and vocabulary to talk about design. That is not an issue here. The book offers a perspective on design that is worth reading about. It limits design thinking to a unit called The Project rather than, say, a research program in a university that does not have such clear boundaries. It usually starts with a Design Brief that spells out what the constraints of the design problem are in such as way that it is not too detailed (thereby closing down design options) or too vague (providing too little direction). A good design brief kicks of a good design process. Design thinking involves three overlapping stages or spaces referred to as inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Design thinking recognizes a tradeoff between efficiency and innovation. You have to explore ideas that sometimes go nowhere to find ideas worth keeping. Design thinking acknowledges that the constraints of the design problem may be contradictory and that design thinking is needed to find the proper balance among the constraints. Design thinking involves the participant in the design process, not just the officially appointed designer.

These are some of the useful ideas about Design Thinking that I have culled from the book so far into my reading of it (1/3 of the way through this quick-to-read book). I've read enough, however, to recommend the book as one worth reading for anyone with an interest in design. The book also preceded Eric Reis' book The Lean Startup (2011) and provides context for understanding where some of the major ideas in that book came from.

You can follow Tim Brown's thinking on his Design Thinking blog and on various YouTube videos such as this Ted Talk.


Startup Vision [Design
Posted on March 16, 2017 @ 10:53:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In the lean startup literature there is alot of talk about validating the startup vision through Minimal Viable Products (MVP) and customer feedback. In today's blog I want to examine the phrase "startup vision" and why we use might choose to use this phrase.

I would argue that one good reason why we use the term "vision" is because a good startup vision can be visualized, as in represented graphically for others to inspect, share, and discuss. If it cannot be visualized, then another term should probably be used - the startup idea, the startup concept, the startup proposition, for example. This would make usage of the phrase "startup vision" more precise.

A large part of the human brain is dedicated to processing visual information. It is a highly evolved system for navigating and interacting with the world. It is arguably our most important sense. There is also lots of evidence that when we imagine things we engage many of the same brain areas that are used to process visual information. The hypothesis of shared brain areas helps to explain why we have the ability to vividly imagine and visualize things that don't exist in front of our eyes. It can also be used to explain why imagination is a powerful ability - it taps into our highly evolved visual thinking ability.

A virtuous loop can happen when we visualize the startup vision. Being able to see the vision expressed on paper or on screen can get our visual systems engaged in further problem solving and add more detail and specificity to the vision. Our ability to hold ideas in working memory is limited but our ability to visually process many items at a time is much greater. When our working memory cuts out our visual system can cut in and help us with longer chains of reasoning.

If I asked you to tell me what is involved in selling carrots to customers you might imagine someone planting a carrot seed, growing it, harvesting, washing it, and selling it to a customer. If we visualize the full cycle, however, we might stand a better chance of seeing that there are many additional steps involved that our conceptual appreciation omitted. Zach Loeks, in his new book The Permaculture Market Garden: A Visual Guilde to a Profitable Whole-systems Farm Business (2017), created this visualization of the carrot selling process:

Zach's book contains many such visualizations to help readers understand a host of ideas and processes. This particular visualization helps us to appreciate all the steps involved in the carrot sales process and allows us to think in detail about each step in the production process and, perhaps, how we might optimize or improve them. What I also like is that the visualization doesn't require excellent drawing skills to express the steps involved. This sketch looks like something many of us could create with some colored pencils.

Another aspect of Zach's book that is interesting is the use of color in all his visualizations. Often when we think of the startups vision we don't think of it as involving color, but why not? Bill Mollison, in his magnum opus, the Permaculture Designers Manual (1988), also had abundant visualizations but they were all grayscale line drawings. It is hard to make certain distinctions "pop" when you don't use color to code the differences you want to draw attention to. Color also contributes aesthetics to your vision which can also be important.

The purpose of this blog is to draw your attention to the odd use the use of the term "vision" in the phrase "startup vision". Often when discussing the "startup vision" words alone are used to describe what the startup wants to accomplish, however, that does not explain why the term "vision" is used ("startup intention" might be better). When the startup vision is strong, the founder can see what the future should look like as if it is already in front of them and can also visualize it with diagrams, figures and line drawings, ideally with some color included as well. Perhaps we should reserve the term startup vision for cases in which actual visualizations accompany the startups intent to shape the future.


The Outdoor Room Pattern [Design
Posted on December 14, 2016 @ 04:38:00 PM by Paul Meagher

In Christopher Alexander's seminal book, A Pattern Language (1977), he and his co-authors identified 253 significant design patterns that could be used for "Towns, Buildings, Construction" (this phrase is the subtitle of the book). I discussed this book previously in blog titled Learning a Pattern Language.

One design pattern that intrigued me at the time was pattern 163, the "Outdoor Room", because I though it was a pattern that would help me to enjoy working in my vineyard more. Take a break from weeding, pruning, or trellising by walking to a nearby outdoor room that would have some of the comforts of a room in your home. I never did get to build that "Outdoor Room" but it is on my todo list.

Today I realized that I actually built an outdoor room without even knowing it. When I blogged about my Garage Mini-Winery project I mentioned that one of the major issues I ran into was that I used my garage to store alot of junk and that the mini-winery displaced a significant area of the garage that was devoted to storing junk (e.g., barbecue, tires, car ramps, bikes, etc...). I am still dealing with the fallout of not having enough room in my garage for other uses so last weekend I worked on solving that problem by installing a roof underneath my deck. My wife suggested this as an alternative to building a lean to off my garage. So I purchased some 1 in x 6 in x 14 foot long pressure-treated wood, 7 Tuftex polycarbonate panels (10 foot long by 26 inches wide), 500 metal siding screws, and 4 in, 3 in and 2 inch deck screws for the project. I used a table saw to cut the pressure-treated wood evenly into two 1 in x 3 in x 14 foot strips and used these to install the strapping that the panels would attach to. I used 24 inch centers between the strapping and started with 4 layers of strapping for the outermost row of strapping, then 3 layers for the next row of strapping (24 inches apart), and so on. This pattern of strapping created the gradient for water to flow away from the house. Once the strapping was in place, I got my wife and son to hold the panel in place while I screwed in the panel. After the first panel, I installed the next panel by overlapping one ridge of the existing panel with the new panel. I then installed the screws along this overlap at each row of strapping, then I went back to the part of the panel closest the house and systematically installed 3 other screws per row of strapping until I hit the row of strapping furthest away from the roof. My wife pulled gently on the panels so they would install without any buckling. Afterwards I ran a chalk line down the middle of each row of strapping and I put screws at every ridge point of the panel (water runs in the valleys) along the length of the strapping. This is what the final product looked like.

I have since moved stuff into the area under the deck. Today I moved some cheap plastic Adirondack chairs under the deck and with that addition I realized that it was a nice place to sit and watch the wet snow coming down in my suburban back yard.

This for me is a bit of a lesson in how a pattern language works. Find some patterns in the book that appeal to you and you might be surprised how a particular pattern will manifest itself if you are aware of and receptive to the pattern. My "outdoor room" looks nothing like I initially imagined it would but it is sheltered from the elements and I can sit in a relaxing chair while I'm there. I'm not planning on spending large amounts of time in this outdoor room, but it is now an option and it gives me some joy to be able to do so. Note that the "joy" a pattern produces is one of the defining attributes of the design patterns that Christoper Alexander attempted to identify in his book. Any future changes to this space might be done with a view to it being an outdoor room and not simply a storage space. A small propane heater and a glass of wine might be a nice addition the next time I relax in my outdoor room.


Garage Mini-Winery: Part 3 [Design
Posted on October 19, 2016 @ 08:44:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I now have a working mini-winery in my garage (see part 1 and part 2 for background).

I am testing the system out on some plum wine and plum port that I recently started fermenting. You can see wires dangling from the wall. These are wires from a humidity controller and a temperature controller. The temperature controller isn't doing anything other than monitoring the temperature of the fermentation bucket. I had an electrician install two 500 watt heaters, one for the (future) red wine zone and one for the (future) white wine zone, so I am not using my temperature controller at this time to control any aspect of the temperature. What I am using the temperature controller for is to monitor the difference between the baseboard temperature setting/current value and the fermentation bucket temperature (the temperature probe is attached to the fermentation bucket). The fermentation temperature runs a bit higher than the heater temperature setting so to get your desired fermentation temperature you have to set the heater temperature a bit lower that the desired fermentation temperature. I'm also monitoring and controlling relative humidity. If the humidity goes beyond a certain level an exhaust fan will come on. When the baseboard heaters come on they also dry out the air so they also act like a dehumidifier. Air quality is being monitored with my nose for now. When I visit the room I'll air out the room before I go in by leaving the door open and I'll leave it open after I go in if I feel it needs more of an air exchange.

When you reach milestones in a project they are times to reflect, learn, correct course, and plan for your next milestone. This is the 4th milestone for the mini-winery. The third milestone was sheathing it in and realizing that before I put up some trim I should consult on some electrical upgrades. It was not difficult to unscrew the plywood off the wall to handle the electrical upgrades. I could perhaps have planned better but the need to get something in place for an upcoming grape harvest meant I had to achieve some milestones fairly quickly in order to get ready. The 4th milestone was to actually get something fermenting in the room and monitoring the fermentation. The next milestone will be to build some shelving, figure out what to do with my wash tub, and scale up fermentation with grapes from my vineyard.

The plum wine/port that I am fermenting was from plums I harvested of a healthy and productive plum tree on our farm property (no nearby sprays and no treatments, all natural). I harvested 62 lbs of plums off the tree. I let them ripen for a while in my basement, then put them into plastic 5 gallon fermentation buckets after I broke the skins and ran a paint mixing tool on them to further macerate the must. Topped the fermentation bucket up a bit with water so there wouldn't be alot of air headspace in the bucket. I added pectic enzyme to break down the cell walls of the plum flesh to release the juice, and campden tablets to kill of the wild yeast. After 4 days of sitting, and with a few more campden tablets added to keep the fermentation halted, I juiced the plum mash at my kitchen sink by straining it through a nylon mesh that you can buy at wine store for this purpose. I had to hand rinse the bag of pulp and seeds to extract the more stubborn juice.

I had good recovery of juice using this method and didn't have to add any more water to my juice after I added the amount of sugar amount required for 5 gallons of plum wine and 5 gallons of plum port. This is my first time fermenting plum juice so we'll see how it turns out and what there might be to learn from it. I planted plum seeds from the tree in a part of my garden after harvesting just in case I need to produce plum juice in the future. Didn't cost me anything for the seed and the tree it came from impressed me. The mini-winery will give me a better ability to reproduce the fermentation conditions that might have resulted in a nice plum wine or port.

Today I will be driving down to visit the vineyard. Last time I was there I left early in the morning as the fog was lifting. I took a photo of the section of the vineyard I'll be harvesting this year. Most of it is netted against birds so hopefully the crop will still be there when I check it out.


Garage Mini-Winery: Part 2 [Design
Posted on October 6, 2016 @ 06:19:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I reached another milestone in my garage mini-winery project (see part 1). It is now framed in and ready to be covered in. My son and I got a couple of hours in last night framing the long wall and installing a used door I got for the project. Still tweaking the door.

One unique problem you may encounter in taking over the space in your garage for some serious hobby is that you may already have alot of stuff in your garage that you have to deal with while you are building your space. The stuff in my garage has created alot of clutter in our workspace and involves extra work taking stuff out to work on the project, then putting it back in the garage at night when you are done. Project can turn into decluttering and relocation subprojects.

This project has reminded me of the Permaculture principle of highest use wherein we are supposed to ask what the highest use is of some design element so that our design is especially geared to that use. Another Permaculture principle is the principle of multiple uses wherein we are supposed to ask what are all the uses that some design element can have so that our design also takes into account as many of the most important uses as possible.

In the case of a garage we can ask what is the highest use that a garage can have? To store cars? To store accumulated family belongings? To fix and repair automotive and house hold items? To build stuff? A place to hang out and some beer or wine? A mini-winery?

I would say the highest use for my garage right now is to perform the role of being a mini-winery for my grapes this fall. Almost as high a use is to store stuff. Fixing, repairing, and building is another use. The use profile of the garage has changed because I introduced a new highest use to the structure and demoted other uses. The space has a new plan.

The next blog on this project should be when it is all enclosed at which point I can start testing its thermal efficiency at colder temps. I picked up an Inkbird thermostat as a device to potentially regulate the ambient temperature of the winery. The device cost approx. $50 and is used by alot of home beer and wine makers. This video provides an excellent educational review of the device and how to practically set it for controlling temperature.

I have a similar Inkbird controller for relative humidity (expressed as a percentage) but I'll be addressing temperature control first while monitoring the relative humidity of the mini-winery space.

An important design constraint for the wall sheathing is that I be able to remove each piece of plywood easily if I have to get back into the wall. I had to set the depth gauge on my circular saw to remove parts of the installed plywood ceiling because the partition walls would have overlapped it. Wore ski googles to keep the dust out of my eyes and drilled holes at the end of the cut to finish it. Not the best way to get your ceiling panels cut to size but it worked.

I will be putting in two maintenance hatches in case I need to bring power from adjacent plugins or run water lines. Here is one of the hatches located at the bottom to the right. It is close to another electrical outlet on the other side of the wall in case I want more plugins.


Garage Mini-Winery: Part 1 [Design
Posted on September 27, 2016 @ 11:35:00 AM by Paul Meagher

A project I'm working on this week is to convert a section of my garage into a mini-winery space. This project is necessary because I hope to have some grapes to harvest in the next month and I want to have a space dedicated to fermenting and storing the wine under controlled conditions. There is a tradition of using a garages as a launch pad for ideas and businesses and I hope to honor that tradition in this series of blogs on my garage mini-winery.

There are three ambient conditions that I'm hoping to control in my mini-winery:

  1. Temperature
  2. Humidity
  3. Air Quality

The main variable I'm concerned with first is Temperature. There are three temperature zones that I want to control:

  1. The ambient winery room temperature.
  2. The red wine fermentation temperature.
  3. The white wine fermentation temperature.

In most of the wine making literature I've read, red and white wines are supposed to be fermented at different temperatures. Whites around 13 C (55 F) and reds around 30 C (86 F).

My first objective, however is to better control the ambient winery room temperature and then I can differentiate into controlling fermentation zone temperatures.

To control the ambient temperature of the mini-winery I'm building a room into a section of my garage. Yesterday, me and my son installed an 8 ft. x 12 ft. insulated floor. I chose this particular size so I wouldn't waste any wood and because it was close to the room dimensions I want. The actual dimensions of the room will be 7 ft. x 12 ft. because I don't want a window in the winery room. This is what the project looks like right now.

My son helped me with the mini-winery project when he got home from football practice. We got two walls insulated/vapored and linoleum down.

I'm thinking of going with thin plywood on the wall. I want to be able to easily remove panels if I have to. This project does not involve messing with the existing electrical setup of the garage which is non-ideal but workable.


Seasonal Patterns [Design
Posted on July 18, 2016 @ 10:31:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I spent some time researching seasonality and found this interesting diagram.


Lots of time-based patterns exhibit periodicity, that is, the pattern recurs, and because of this you can often represent time-based patterns as sine waves or step functions that grow and diminish over time (e.g., lettuce grows and can be harvested at different intervals through the growing season). This diagram contains alot of time-based information presented in a very effective manner. It also reminds me a bit of permaculture zones and sectors. A sector is represented by what each season brings and a zone by how far the type of item is away from your personal space (zonation is not really used here however within each band, the size of the font differs to suggest imporantance of the food within that food grouping).

This is just one way to represent time-based patterns. I offer it up as a stimulus to think about whether time-based patterns are important to your business (e.g., patterns associated with sales, income, taxes, cashflow, profits, spending, growth, etc...), what are the various techniques we might use to respresent these temporal patterns, and whether it might be useful to make an effort map these temporal patterns.


Patterns In Time [Design
Posted on July 8, 2016 @ 09:34:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In a recent blog, A Pattern A Day, I proposed the goal of learning a pattern a day. If you google the phrase "a pattern a day" you will see this phrase interpreted to mean learning some simple new visual pattern every day. That is one way to interpret the phrase but it is not a very interesting interpretation to me. Such patterns will often be quickly forgotten and ultimately have little bearing on day-to-day living. I'm in search of patterns that are more significant and which aren't just spatial in nature.

The architect Christopher Alexander proposed 253 design patterns that were more significant because they were patterns he felt made the buildings, towns, and construction more alive and joyful to be around. His criteria for identifying architectural patterns worth caring about was that they promote life and joy. The patterns he identified involved a connection between a particular way of designing a building, town, or landscape and positive human reactions to it. There are definite visual elements to the patterns he identified but they were worth caring about because of the positive emotional reactions they generated.

Lately I have come to the realization that alot of the patterns that I care about take place over time. Anyone who gardens is interested in the response of plants to sunlight, water, drought, fertilization, disease, and a variety of other factors. One particular temporal pattern I'm studying at the moment is how long it takes for weeds to emerge after I till up some soil for planting. Rather than planting into tilled soil right away, I'm now waiting for a few days to see when the weeds will emerge so I can quickly eliminate them with a flame weeder (pictured below) before I plant into the bed. I'm trying to create a stale seed bed to plant into so I am observing how long it takes for weeds to emerge after I till the soil so I can remove them just prior to planting. This is supposed to create less plant competition and less weeding. We'll see.

I think it takes about 5 days for weeds to emerge after I till and prep a bed but for me to be more certain I will examine this more than once. Tomorrow I'll be returning to my farm where I'll be quite interested in how many weeds there are in some beds I prepared for planting last friday. After 8 days I should have lots of weeds to flame before I plant my next round of seeds.

The pattern that interests me in this case is not based on any positive emotions it might inspire (although seeing weed seedlings quickly evaporate under heat is quite pleasurable), but rather it is a pattern worth learning because it can potentially lead to better yields and less work. There is a very practical motivation for wanting to learn patterns of weed emergence. Notice the use of the word "patterns" (in the plural) rather than "pattern" (in the singular). Weeds emerge at different rates depending on the ambient conditions (amount of rain, sunlight, ground temperatures, etc...) and the seed bank in the soil so I don't expect weeds to always emerge after 5 days. The term pattern is often used to label a phenomenon that exhibits some variability around a typical pattern or ideal set of circumstances.

Many temporal patterns of interest to gardeners can be measured in days but there are many other temporal patterns that occur in much shorter or much longer time periods. For example, Allan Newell in his book Unified Theories of Cognition (1990) suggested that it was important to consider the time scale over which different patterns of human behavior happen (p. 122) because we need to use different explanatory concepts to account for them.

The diagram is useful to remind us that regularities occur at different time scales. Sometimes patterns can be explained by reference to concepts situated in the relevant band, or perhaps by concepts situated in a lower or higher band.

We can look for temporal patterns in business as well that might be useful for designing or managing aspects of a business. Sam Altman published a recent article called Later Stage Advice for Startups in which he discusses patterns that successful startups need to respond to after 12-24 months of growth. If they don't respond to some of these temporal patterns he argues chaos will ensue. Worth a read.

The purpose of this blog is to raise the issue that patterns occur in time as well as in space and often in both (spatio-temporal patterns). Often when we use the term pattern we think about nice visual patterns but these patterns are often somewhat trivial compared to the patterns that are worth caring about. Many of the patterns worth caring about take place over time and we can use our knowledge of them to help us navigate our way in business, life and gardening. Hence the phrase "timing is everything".

NOTE: One of the best philosophical discussions on what a pattern is was by the philosopher Daniel Dennett in his article Real Patterns (1991, PDF download). Of course you can find lots of discussion on temporal patterns among day traders but whether they are "real patterns" is often in doubt.


A Pattern A Day [Design
Posted on June 23, 2016 @ 07:43:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, learning a pattern language, I suggested that learning a pattern language is a long term committment. In the case of Christoper Alexander's pattern language, there are 253 patterns to learn. There are other patterns to learn besides Alexander's which mainly catalogues patterns related to towns, buildings and construction.

If learning a pattern language is a long term committment, then how should we proceed to learn a pattern language? My own ideal approach, which I'm toying with, is to learn a pattern a day. Today that will involve studying one of the patterns in Alexander's book. It will also involve reading about a plant family pattern in Thomas Eppel's book Botany in a Day (2013, 6th Edition). Thomas has a recent video on plant identification that discusses his "patterns method" to plant identification.

Another place I'll try to learn some patterns is through observation of nature and the recordings of those observations. Observing a pattern might be like landing a big fish, a bit much to expect on every outing into nature. Perhaps if you come to the landscape with a pattern language observing patterns each day becomes more likely.

Before trying to develop a pattern language for business, it is probably advisable to master a pattern language from some of the masters and then use that fluency as the basis for coming up with a pattern language for business.

One of the motivations for learning a pattern language is that there are alot of unnamed or unobserved patterns right in front of our noses that we lack the language to express or identify. Naming a pattern is important so that we have a language to discuss how we might use those patterns in some design we might be contemplating.

Alot of good pinterest pages strike me as someone's cataloging of patterns applicable to some domain they are interested in. What is lacking is an attempt to name patterns and identify the field of forces giving rise to the patterns and how they resolve it. The pattern brings joy to the pinterester which is often the basis for identifying patterns worth caring about, but they are mere novelties if they are not accompanied by labelling and some explication of why the pattern works.

The pattern I studied today from Christopher Alexander's book was selected at random was pattern 33 labelled "Night life". Here is the context statement for the pattern: Most of the city's activities close down at night; those which stay open won't do much for the night life of the city unless they are together (p. 180). Here is the pattern he suggests as the solution: Knit together shops, amusements, and services which are open at night, along with hotels, bars, and all-night diners to form centers of night life: well-lit, safe, and lively places that increase the intesity of pedestian activity at night by drawing all the people who are out at night to the same few spots in the town. Encourage these evening centers to distribute themselves evenly accross the town. (p. 182).

I recently heard an interview by Ben Cowan-Dewar on the opening of his second golf course, the acclaimed Cabot Cliffs golf course. They have one world class oceanside golf course built, the Cabot Links, and built a second nearby golf course, the Cabot Cliffs with commanding views of the ocean below. His comment was that "one golf course is a novelty, 2 golf courses is a destination". Likewise, one night life amusement is a novelty but many night life amusements becomes a destination. The night life pattern can be applied beyond night life situations which is what makes learning a pattern language a potentially useful design tool. The night life pattern applied to golf tourism.


Learning A Pattern Language [Design
Posted on June 21, 2016 @ 07:49:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In a previous blog called Wholistic Design I pointed to some recent discussion of Christopher Alexander's ideas on the nature of design. For anyone interested in the nature of design you will eventually cross paths with Alexander's pattern language work, in particular, his book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (1977).

I purchased this book many years ago and did not get very far into it because it is 1171 pages long plus a fairly extensive prologue that is not included in this page count. I don't have the luxury of sitting down to read a book of this girth and when I dipped into it, all I found was some weird discussions of different architectural ideas that didn't make alot of sense to me.

The problem was I didn't read the prologue that provides more guidance on why the book has the structure it does, how the discussion of each pattern is structured, and what you are supposed to take away from reading about each of the 253 patterns discussed in it. Once you get the basic idea on how the book works, you can read it like a car manual where you only read the sections that you find relevant or interesting. Like a car manual, you may find that reading about one aspect of your vehicle leads you to reading about other aspects of your vehicle to get a deeper understanding of your problem and possible solutions. Each pattern in the pattern language book provides references/hyperlinks to other patterns so that you can see how the pattern relates to patterns above it and below it. Reading the book becomes a process of jumping from one pattern to another to see how it might complete a higher level pattern or be completed by using a lower level pattern. A pattern language has a syntactic structure with pattern elements related hierarchically to other elements.

A book on towns, buildings and constructions written in 1977 is bound to be a bit dated in some ways, but is irrelevant because the true task of the book is to teach the reader what a pattern language is by giving the reader 253 phrases/patterns in that language. Like any language, you can't learn it or become fluent in it in one sitting. You should keep consulting the book for patterns as you have time, relate them to your experience, and eventually you will start to pick up the language.

One way in which Alexander's work has evolved is that there are now pattern languages for other domains than the domains Alexander devised his language for. Alexander's pattern language was for "towns, buildings and constructions", but there are now suggested pattern languages in the Permaculture literature for domains of market gardens and edibible forest gardens.

Is it possible to develop a pattern language that might apply to starting a business or investing in a business? David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, in book 2 of Edible Forest Gardens, offer some guidance in the form of a 3 step process:

If you find yourself in a specific garden or other place that "works", that feels alive to you, that you want to use as a basis for abstracting a pattern, you must do three things. First, define the physical feature(s) of the place that seem worth abstracting. Base this judgement on your own observations of the space, its features, and what makes it so special. What is the essence of what makes the place work so well? Second, define the problem the pattern solves or the field of forces this pattern resolves. Finally, define the range of contexts where this problem or field of forces exists, and where this pattern might therefore be useful.

A preexisting pattern language is a good guide to what a pattern is and how to define one for yourself. Ultimately, though your inner senses will be the best guide to this work. Pay attention to your innter voice as you go through the process, for wwhen you experience an "aha" moment you will have found something worlthwhile. The key points to remember are that the best patterns generate a sense of alivementess, and that patterns solve problems.

I would add that patterns solve problems worth solving because the pattern feels good, generates a sense of aliveness, and solves a problem (i.e.., resolves a field of potentially conflicting forces).

The purpose of this blog is to suggest that it might be worth learning one of the pattern languages out there, starting with Alexander's one seminal discussion of them. You might want to read Kevin Kelly's introduction and endorsement of Alexander's book and how he used a pattern language to successful design his own property.


Prototyping A Tree Guard [Design
Posted on April 14, 2016 @ 05:00:00 PM by Paul Meagher

One itch that I wanted to scratch involves protecting young apple trees and vines on my farm from damage caused by string trimmers. I was also looking for a way to speed up the job of trimming away the grass and weeds that grow around their base, ideally avoiding alot of hand weeding. I have used white plastic collars to protect my apple trees from rodents but I don't trust them to protect against string trimmers as the plastic is too thin, too tight to the tree, and has exposed areas between the coils of plastic. I researched the issue online and a fellow in a forum mentioned that he used Big O drainage pipe to protect his trees from string trimmers. I took this idea and ran.

I purchased 150 feet of 4 inch Big O drainage pipe to use for making my tree guards. I figure if I don't end up using it for my tree guards I can find a use for it it's intended purpose as drainage pipe. I also had a large coil of heavy gauge wire that was given to me that I wanted to use to make some pegs to hold the tree collars in place. This is what the parts of my tree guard design looks like so far.

When I snipped my wire into pieces using bolt cutters, I used an anvil to flatten and shape the wire into L-shaped pegs.

Finally, this is what my tree guard prototype looks like on an apple tree. Note that I made a slit in the Big O pipe so I could wrap it around the tree.

From this exercise, I learned that under certain conditions I need longer pegs to get a better bite into the ground. I'll experiment with creating longer pegs and how they perform under different ground conditions.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any string trimmers that I wanted to start as I've had them in storage for 4 months and didn't have fresh mixed gas readily available to use. That will be the next test of my prototype.

The motivation for prototyping a tree guard came to me when I started to think this might be a good idea and realized that my progress would be stalled unless I could build a prototype to begin testing it. The prototype provided me with some useful feedback about peg sizing, how easy it is to make the plastic collars (handsaw is fast but not precise without a jig) and how easy it is to make the L-shaped pegs (the bottleneck in the process). I still have some prototype testing to do in terms of seeing how the collar handles contact with my Stilhl string trimmer. If that works out, maybe I'll try to figure out a process for making L-shared pegs faster from a heavy gauge coil of wire (weights 250-300 lbs).

My brother suggested that I put something inside the Big O pipe to eliminate the need for hand weeding (e.g., gravel? geotextile?) or to protect the tree or vine from pests such as slugs (diatomaceous earth?). Consider this an opensource farm hack and if you come up with any better ideas for protecting young trees and vines from string trimmers let me know.


Design & Making [Design
Posted on March 17, 2016 @ 07:48:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Nobel Laureate Herb Simon wrote an influential book on design (and other topics) called The Sciences of the Artificial (Third edition 1996, first published in 1969). In Chapter 5 called "The Science of Design: Creating the Artificial" he introduced the importance of design this way:

Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artififacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes professions from the sciences. Schools of engineering, as well as schools of architecture, business, education, law, and medicine are all centrally concerned with the process of design (p. 111).

There are three aspects of this statement that want to highlite in today's blog.

1. Herb claims that the intellectual activity used across these diverse examples is fundamentally the same. The intellectual activity he is referring to is problem solving. Herb believes the problem solving element of design can be rigorously taught. Herb, in collaboration with others, developed a simulation of problem solving in the early days of AI called the General Problem Solver (GPS) which was largely an implementation of means ends analysis, one of the main techniques of problem solving and design.

2. Herb defined design as "courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones". This is a good definition but he went a bit further and gave a formal definition of what is involved in design:

The reasoning implicit in GPS is that, if a desired situation differes from a present situation by differences D1, D2 ..., Dn, and if action A1 removes differences of type D1, action A2 removes differences of type D2, and so on, them the present siatuion can be transformed into the desired siatuion by performing the sequence of actions D1, D2 ..., Dn.

This reasoning is by no means valid in terms of the rules of standard logic in all possible worlds. Its validity requires some rather strong assumptions about the independence of the effects of the several actions on the several differences. One might say that the reasoning is valid in worlds that are "addititive" or "factorable". (p. 122)

Even if the world does not exhibit the independence that is required, that is often something we don't appreciate until we engage in exploratory design.

3. The final point I want to discuss is Herb's statement that "Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training". In this chapter of his book, Herb Simon was concerned with coming up with a curriculum that could be taught to such professionals so that a core element of being a professional, the ability to design, was actually taught to them in a scientific manner. These are the topics he would cover and they are also the list of topics he discussed in more detail in this chapter.

1. Theory of Evaluation: utility theory, statistical decision theory.
2. Computational Methods:
a. Algorithms for choosing optimal alternatives such as linear programming computations, control theory, dynamic programming.
b. Algorithms and heurisitics for choosing satisfactory alternatives.
3. The Formal Logic of Design: imperative and declaritive logics.

4. Heuristic Search: factorization and means-ends analysis.
5. Allocation of resources for search.
6: Theory of Structure and Design Organization: Hierarchic systems.
7. Representation of design problems.

One problem I have with Herb's curriculum is that it is a curriculum for "professional training" but design has become much more democratized skill these days. I doubt that this curriculum will be used to teach the masses about design. This is not to say it isn't worth studying for powerful ideas about design, but I would suggest that a book like The Makers Manual: A Practical Guide To the New Industrial Revolutions (2015) is a much more relevant and inclusive curriculum for teaching design. Here you will see 3D Printers, Milling Machines, and Laser Cutters and be introduced to the software for controlling them. You'll learn about GitHub, Processing, Raspberry Pi and Auduino. You'll learn about ways to finance a business startup that might arise from your design and manufacturing work.

Since Herb Simon published his book the Maker Movement has come on the scene and becoming increasingly relevant. They are talking about a new industrial revolution happening and the skills required to be a part of it. Should we be teaching design or should we be teaching making instead? And when should we start teaching it and to whom?


Representing Constraints [Design
Posted on February 8, 2016 @ 08:29:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In a recent blog called Constraint Satisfaction: Part 1 I illustrated a couple of ways to represent constraints (i.e., line graphs, linear equations) and how to go about satisfying them (i.e., line intersection, gaussian elimination). In today's blog I want to provide a couple of other approaches to representing constraints to add more flexibility and precision to our thinking about constraints.

An example that illustrates a couple of different ways of representing constraints is from p.113 of Robert Schalkoff's book Artificial Intelligence (1990). In this example, Robert represents the goal of getting professorial tenure as involving the satisfaction of a number of constraints that can be represented in tree form as follows:

An equivalent way to represent these constraints is in the form of a PROLOG program which looks like this:

The main part of a PROLOG program consists of a set of facts and rules. These facts and rules constitute a small database which which can be queried. One question we might ask is "who will get tenure" which is formulated in this way in PROLOG:


The answer PROLOG returns is "rjs" who is the book's author Robert J. Schalkoff.

So we can represent the constraints we face when trying to achieve some goal using tree graphs or we can use a logic programming language like PROLOG. The advantage of the latter is that we can draw inferences from our database of facts and rules, but this is probably not worth the effort in simple cases like this. We can run the logic program in our head.

I decided to exhibit a PROLOG program not because I expect people to start using it to solve logic problems, but because it provides a nice high-level language with which to express constraints. Also important is the idea that if you don't express these constraints (i.e., facts & rules) in the proper relationships, then you won't not be able to reach the conclusions/goals you want. You can't just write facts and rules down in an unstructured format. In this case, the graph provides the discipline we need to express our facts and rules with the proper relationships so that we can logically satisfy the get_tenure() goal.

The purpose of this blog is to illustrate that a couple more ways to represent constraints are with tree graphs and with structured logic programs consisting of facts and rules. It should be noted that the goal you are trying to achieve may have subgoals which have to be satisfied, hence the reason why tree graphs are useful. There may also be a strict or loose order to when these subgoals need to be achieved. In the graph above the subgoals on the top might have a higher priority (i.e., publishes()) than the subgoal at the bottom (i.e., teaches-well()). The order in which subgoals are achieved is often important in real world problem solving.

So if you are in the coffee shop thinking about your business and how you are going to achieve your goals, one way to achieve some precision in your thinking is to represent the constraints to achieving your goals with a tree graph or a simple logic program like the gets_tenure() example. There are other methods you can use like line graphs and sets of linear equations. The more precisely you can represent goals and constraints the better able you will be to reason about them.

On p. 114 of his textbook professor Schalkoff illustrated the sequence that PROLOG uses to figure out ?-gets_tenure(Who). This may not represent the order in which a professor satisfies tenure subgoals but it does illustrate useful further details: 1) there are often a significant number of subgoals that have to be achieved in order to achieve a significant high level goal, 2) your abstract tree structure needs to eventually "bottom out" with an actual binding to some real object or result. Constraint satisfaction involves satisfying our low level goals in concrete form so they propagate back towards achieving our high level goals.


Design & Business Constraints [Design
Posted on February 4, 2016 @ 11:30:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Recently I posted two blogs on the topic of Constraint Satisfaction (Part 1, Part 2). I'm still interested in this topic and did some more searching last night to see what additional useful material I could dig up on the topic of constraints.

One recent resource that looks interesting is a book by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden called A Beautiful Constraint (2015). According to their website, "A Beautiful Constraint calls for constraint–driven problem–solving to become a much more widespread capability and offers an original framework to achieve that". Reviews for the book so far are quite good.

Another resource is an MIT Thesis by Mark Donald Gross called Design As Exploring Constraints (1985). This freely available manuscript is useful because it directly addresses the role of constraints in design, indeed, it views design as an exploration of constraints. While the technology discussed is dated, the discussion around design as exploring constraints is not.

A popular approach to thinking about constraints is via the Theory of Constraints popularized by Eliyahu M. Goldratt in his book The Goal (1986). In this theory business growth is viewed as a process of identifying and overcoming a constraint that is currently holding a company back from growing. Once that constraint is addressed a new constraint will be revealed as the limiting factor which in turn will have to be addressed and so. The theory of constraints is popular in the lean production literature. This view of growth is similiar to the Law of the Minimum which I discussed in a previous blog.

A final noteworthy resource was discussed by Mark Gross in his thesis, namely a book by Nobel Laureate Herb Simon called Sciences of the Artificial (1996). This is a seminal book on "Design Science" in which Herb Simon argues for a view of design as "optimizing an objective function over a region bounded by constraints" (Gross, p. 140). The optimization that is going on here, however, is quite subtle because Herb Simon views such optimization as a matter of "satisficing" or finding a "good enough solution" rather than a solution that would require unrealistic amounts of computing power. There is a threshold to the amount of work we'll do to arrive at our view on what the optimal design is. So while we may in fact arrive at an optimal solution to a set of constraints when we can formulate the problem in quantitative terms, in most cases we are using a different approach to optimizing our objective function, one in which we will be satisfied with a good enough solution if it means being able to operate within time and resource constraints at hand.

The purpose of this blog is to identify some more literature worth exploring to clarify the role and nature of constraints in design and business.


Principle of Highest Use [Design
Posted on January 18, 2016 @ 09:01:00 AM by Paul Meagher

One of the books I'm currently reading is Toby Hemenway's book, The Permaculture City (2015), which I also mentioned in my last blog.

I am a couple of chapters in. These 2 chapters were worth the price of the book as they are filled with insights on systems thinking and design, a couple of topics that are of perennial interest to me. These chapters reaffirm a suspicion I've held for awhile now, that anyone looking for advice on coming up with ideas and approaches to starting a business can look to Permaculture as much as to Lean Startup Theory for advice and inspiration on how to proceed. With the publication of this book, I think that there is now a solid case for doing so.

The book is not about starting a business per se, but starting a business is just one example of where good design comes into play. You also need good design to grow a productive garden, to raise good kids, to construct a successful investment portfolio, to build a house that you will be satisfied with over the long term. Why should the theory on how to start a business be viewed as separate from the theory on how to design anything well? Toby views Permaculture's design principles as general design principles.

The Principle of Highest Use is one such principle which Toby discusses in chapter 2. This principle advises us to consider all the uses that X might have and to structure our usage to ensure that we extract the highest use along with many of its other uses as well. We employ the highest use principle, for example, with our use of clothing. When our clothing is shiny and new we wear it in situations where it will be put to its highest use, at work or at school for example. Once the clothing gets a bit tattered and smeared, it might become clothing we wear around the house and in the garden. Once it gets really beat up we might wear it on a messy job that makes even its use around the house unacceptable. At that point we might cut it up into rags and continue to use it. Our clothing has all of these potential uses, but we want to make sure we enjoy its highest use, its next highest use, and so on before eventually discarding it or recycling it. This may sound like an ecological principle with a scope limited to telling us how to treat physical objects, but what Toby does well in this book is illustrate how Permaculture principles have much wider relevance:

Many people, consciously or not, apply highest use to their work habits. At the beginning of my workday, my brain is at its best, so I do the most intellectually challenging tasks, such as studying new material that I need to master. When that part of my mind feels stuffed full, I move to writing and other creative work. Once my creative juices are spent, I answer e-mails and make phone calls. It takes even less brainpower to sort, file, and organize tasks and materials so I do that next. When my brain has deteriorated to an inert mass, I find physical work to do. Somehow that work pattern manages to preserve some social energy, which often fills my evening. ~ p.33

This way of illustrating the principle is provocative and made me reflect on whether I am making the highest use of my brain. Makes me appreciate why watching TV is a guilty pleasure. Is my brain really that dead that all I can do with it is watch tv?

The highest use principle is useful for thinking about manage a business. If your startup is doing poorly is it because you aren't making the highest use of your employees? Are you only getting their second or third highest use? How do you structure your workplace so highest use is managed appropriately. If your programmer's highest use is programming, when should they be attending meetings? At the beginning of the day when they are potentially at their most productive or at the end of the day before they leave work for the day? What may be convenient from a management perspective may be disastrous from a highest use perspective.

According to Toby:

Highest use tells us how to connect design elements or activities in time by linking their functions or uses in a sequence. It tells us what to do first. ~ p.33

The assimilation of a design principle usually involves 2 aspects:

  • Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture, observed that design principles are usually formulated as as imperatives to do something. In this case, we might formulate the highest use principle as the imperative to "Evaluate and Apply Highest Use".
  • Toby advises us to turn this imperative into a mantra so that it becomes ingrained in our consciousness.

I hope this discussion of just of one of the many Permaculture Principle discussed in this book helps to convince you that Permaculture might have something useful to say about alot more things than how to grow a garden, which it also offers good advice on. It can also be used to give us practical ideas on how to start and run a business or how to invest in such businesses. What is the highest use of investment capital? What are all of its potential uses?

I don't want to leave you with the impression that I think Lean Startup Theory is not worth studying. It is. It is no longer the only game in town, however, and many Lean Startup principles are derivable from Permacuture's larger set of design principles. Where they fundamentally differ is that Permaculture's principles also include 3 ethical principles (i.e., Earth Care, People, Care, Return of Surplus to Earth and People) where Learn Startup Theory is not so constrained - let the free market be the judge. Ultimately I think there should be more crosstalk between Learn Startup Theory and Permaculture to see if we can't move both frameworks forward even further. I think Toby's book is a good resource to spur some of that crosstalk.


Generative Versus Extractive Ownership Design [Design
Posted on January 7, 2016 @ 09:49:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Today I finished reading Marjorie Kelly's book Owning Our Future (2102) which I first blogged about last October. My first blog was more concerned with highlighting the idea that there was another type of design that we should be concerned with, ownership design, and that startups and businesses might do well to consider this aspect of design when setting up and managing their business. In this blog I want to summarize the main message from the book which is to contrast two types of ownership design - extractive and generative. Most of our economy is governed by an extractive ownership design but there are examples of successful generative ownership designs as well. Her book involves rooting out generative companies and telling their story and why they are examples of generative ownership design.

We can differentiate these 2 types of ownership design on the basis of 5 contrasting patterns that typify extractive versus generative designs.

In extractive ownership designs we have (p. 18):

  • Financial Purpose: maximizing profits in the short term
  • Absentee Membership: ownership disconnected from life of enterprise
  • Governance By Markets: control by capital markets on autopilot
  • Casino Finance: capital as master
  • Commodity Networks: trading focused solely on price and profits

By contrast, in generative ownership designs we have (p. 18):

  • Living Purpose: creating the conditions for life over the long term
  • Rooted Membership: ownership in human hands
  • Mission-Controlled Governance: control by those dedicated to social mission
  • Stakeholder Finance: capital as friend
  • Ethical Networks: collective support for ecological and social norms

It would be difficult for me to elaborate further upon these differences in this blog as the purpose of the book as a whole was to provide case studies that elaborated upon these differences. I recommend buying the book if you want to know more details.

One impressive generative company discussed in the book is the John Lewis Partnership which operates retail and grocery shops in the UK. Their financial performance is quite good (from Wikipedia):

Financial year Turnover Profit before tax Net profit Partner bonuses Profit retained
2013-2014 £10.2 billion £376.0 million
2012–2013 £9.54 billion £509.0 million £409.6 million £210.8 million (17%) £198.8 million
2011–2012 £8.73 billion £393.3 million £353.8 million £165.2 million (14%) £188.6 million
2010–2011 £8.2 billion £431 million £367.7 million £194.5 million (18%) £173.4 million
2009–2010 £7.4 billion £389 million £306.6 million £151.3 million (15%) £155.3 million
2008–2009 £7 billion £279.6 million £580 million £125.5 million (13%) £146.0 million
2007–2008 £6.8 billion £379.8 million £320.4 million £181.1 million (20%) £198.7 million
2006–2007 £6.4 billion £319.2 million £263.2 million £155 million (18%) £164 million
2005–2006 £5.7 billion £251.8 million £215.1 million £120.3 million (15%) £94.8 million
2004–2005 £5.3 billion £215.3 million £175.9 million £105.8 million (14%) £70.1 million
2003–2004 £5.0 billion £173.5 million £148.8 million £87.3 million (12%) £61.5 million
2002–2003 £4.7 billion £145.5 million £108.6 million £67.6 million (10%) £41.0 million
2001–2002 £4.4 billion £141.5 million £103.3 million £57.3 million (9%) £46.0 million
2000–2001 £4.1 billion £149.5 million £120.4 million £58.1 million (10%) £62.3 million
1999–2000 £3.7 billion £194.7 million £161.0 million £77.8 million (15%) £83.2 million

The employees are "partners" who have ownership in the company. The most significant manifestation of this is the yearly bonuses they receive which are based on 50% of the net profits of the company. On good years this can be up to 20% of their yearly wage (see the 2007-2008 financial year). The company has elaborate policies, structures and people in place to ensure that the idea of the company as a partnership is kept alive and well.

The company came to be owned by employees when the original owner, John Spedan Lewis, decided to sell his interest in his company to employees as he neared his retirement (this is a simplification of the process as it involved setting up a trust with a fair shares charter at the core of the future business). On his death he ceded his property over to the company as well.

Marjorie points out that our current demographic situation means that many baby boomer business owners are reaching retirement age and one choice they may opt for in order to maintain their legacy is to sell their business to their employees rather than to the highest bidder who might run it according to an extractive ownership design which often leaves no legacy or not the legacy the owners wanted to leave to the workers that helped him/her succeed. Marjorie's book is a useful resource for those interested in making the move towards a generative ownership design - what it means and examples of how it might be done.


Ecological Design [Design
Posted on January 5, 2016 @ 09:23:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Anyone interested in ecological design might want to familiarize themselves with the writings of Sim Van der Ryn. He did alot of pioneering work in the late seventies and early eighties which resulted in two influential books: The Toilet Papers (1978) and The Integral Urban House (1982). It is worth studying the cover art, especially the second cover which is more detailed and which envisions an appropriate design for an urban house.

In the nineties Sim and Stuart Cowen published another influential book, Ecological Design (1996), that articulated 5 principles of ecological design.

  1. Solutions Grow from Place
  2. Ecological Accounting Informs Design
  3. Design with Nature
  4. Everyone is a Designer
  5. Make Nature Visible

The book devotes a chapter to each principle and in a future blog I may discuss each principle in more detail. I wouldn't do it as well as the authors as the writing quality is very high. This book is often suggested reading in architecture schools.

More recently, Sim has written a book called Design for an Empathic World (2014). The book includes a number of his own watercolor paintings which, I'm guessing, is one way Sim creates an empathetic relationship to the world.

The concept of "Empathy" is becoming more of a focal point in many people's work. The Culture Of Empathy website is a good resource for learning about the different ways the concept is used.


Circular Textiles [Design
Posted on December 11, 2015 @ 11:26:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I'm finishing up an excellent online EdX course called Circular Economy: An Introduction.

The course consisted of many short videos with leading experts on various circular economy ideas and research directions. There was also alot of interesting online discussion spurred by questions that the instructors posed on various circular economy ideas.

One expert we heard from is Gwen Cunningham who is doing interesting work on Circular Textiles (or textile-to-textile recycling). Circular Textiles extends to things like remanufacturing carpets, but Gwen is particularly interested in remanufacturing clothing products so we can give them a second birth as a new high value clothing item (rather then downgrading them to cheap rags, mattress filler, insulation material, etc...). There are many technical and supply chain challenges in circular economics that are particular to the the type of product you are trying to close the loop on and in the case of clothing fabrics sorting them into homogeneous types of fabrics and breaking them down so they can be built up again are some of the main challenges which Gwen discusses in one of her short videos from the course.

In many industries that adopt a circular economics approach to product development, the business model can potentially shift from consumers buying your product to leasing your product instead. In the case of circular textiles, it would be possible to offer customers the opportunity to lease a pair of jeans for, say, a year or two and after that time have your jeans disassembled, the textiles broken down into their basic constituents, and then reassembled to be leased again by you or someone else. It is fairly easy to see that circular textiles allow for the possibility of creating a much more sustainable fashion industry rather than the industry we have today where a small percentage of clothing is reused, but most of it is either downgraded or landfilled.

It would appear that in North America we are somewhat lagging in our circular economy research and development activities compared to Europe. Integrating circular design and economics into our industries is going to be an important way to achieve our sustainability goals. If you want to learn more about some of the foundational ideas of circular design and economics I would recommend you check out videos from the recent Disruptive Innovation Festival that was designed to coincide with the Circular Economics course and was another reason why I thought this was one of the better online courses to participate in. Videos from the festival are still available to view for a limited time so register now and check them out if you are interested. The festival twitter account is also still quite active with interesting posts.


Modular Design Case Study [Design
Posted on October 22, 2015 @ 10:06:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my backroad travels I came across this device in a field of beef cattle. It was recently purchased by a young entrepreneurial farmer that I've chatted with before.

I did a bit of research on how the device works and you can watch the video below to see for yourself how it can be used to safely and efficiently immobilize an animal so you can deliver medications, tag it, transport it, inspect it and so on.

The young farmer also has over 100 sheep which the device can probably also be used for. If it can handle a small beef calf it should be able to handle sheep? The more types of animals the corral system can handle the more worthwhile it will be to buy. Sheep can graze after beef cattle so eventually he can move the cattle out of this pasture and move the sheep in and use the corral to tag them, deworm them, inspect them and so on. Must be a pain in the ass to do these jobs on a large number of animals if you don't have a good corral system.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, what is interesting about the Lakeland Group's product line is how they have logically separated out various functions of their corral system into different modules that you can buy separately. The head immobilizer is probably an option you can add if you want more or less ability to immobilize the animal. In the picture above (to the left), you can see several beef cattle huddled into what is called a "crowding tub". The crowding tub is probably optional but something you might want to add if you wanted to make the job of corralling the cattle into the immobilizer easier. Likewise there are gates, feeding tubs, watering tubs and transport cages that are additional modular components that you might want to add to your corral system over time.

Apple Computer isn't the only company that figured out how to own the whole customer experience. Corral product companies and fencing companies have similar strategies.

One key to making this modular design strategy work is probably to have at least one component of your modular design that is critical and which you might claim to do a better job of than other companies. Other companies sell similar quality gates, crowding tubs, and feeding tubs but perhaps they don't have an immobilizer that is as well designed as the Lakeland fellows have. Because the immobilizer is one of the main features of your whole corral system then if you buy this particular piece of equipment you are likely to want to buy their add on products because they all go together better than if you try to mix and match components using different corral product suppliers.

This is not a pitch for Lakeland Group products. It is meant to be a brief case study on what modular design looks like and how you might approach marketing and selling a modular product line. You can judge for yourself whether selling a modular product is easier and more profitable than selling only a packaged corral system. So a moral might be to consider whether you should be selling your product as a fully packaged standalone product or whether you would be better off breaking things down into a modular design that might allow people to buy components of the overall system over time? What are the critical components that you need to do better at than the competition and what are the commodity components that you just have to match the competition on? Perhaps this case study will inspire some thinking about how a modular design strategy might work for your startup or business.


Living Design [Design
Posted on October 9, 2015 @ 06:44:00 AM by Paul Meagher

My interest in the fungi kingdom was recently revived by a Mushroom Foray Workshop I attended.

I did a google search on 3D Printed Mushrooms to see what I might find. In the process of searching I came accross some fascintating work by Eric Klarenbeek on new structural materials made by growing mycelium in 3D printed bio-materials and/or plastic waste (produced locally). Eric calls his work Living Design and has a short Ted talk in which he discusses what this means:

Lots of interesting design and eco-possibilities in this line of research. Also interesting is his innovation in 3D printing technology and materials and the idea of a community of Makers that could be enlisted to deploy the innovation locally.

If you want to follow what Eric is up to lately you can visit his website at


Ownership Design [Design
Posted on September 24, 2015 @ 10:18:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I was recently reading an interesting article by Peter Barnes called Common Wealth Trusts: Structures of Transition. Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture, has devoted considerable writing and discussion to Trusts as a good legal structure for communities to conduct business under so I'm always interested in learning more about Trusts and their potential. All public universities and major religious organizations, for example, are incorporated as Trust structures. It is a type of organizational structure that offers an appropriate "ownership design" in many cases. Bill would argue that it is a type of business/organizational structure that is not used enough.

Towards the end of Peter Barnes' article he mentions Marjorie Kelly and her well-received book Owning Our Future (2013).

I'm waiting for the book to come to my local university library but in the meantime I read the intro and first chapter which is available on her website (PDF link). A term she uses which strikes me as quite thought provoking is "Ownership Design" and she makes the point that there are many more ownership design options than capitalist ownership or communist ownership models. There is considerable innovation happening in the middle ground, such as Peter Barnes' call for Common Wealth Trusts.

There are many ways that an entrepreneur can innovate but generally we think about innovating in terms of product or service design and not really that much about ownership design. There are, however, lots of opportunities to innovate in terms of ownership design as well.

Some examples that come to mind can be found in farming entrepreneur Joel Salatin's book Everything I Want To Do is Illegal. In this book he recounts his many run ins with food inspectors who wanted to shut him down. Often the way he avoided prosecution was by tweaking the ownership design of his product. For example, if a side of beef is first sold to a customer and processed after that there are alot fewer food inspection people on your back than if you try to sell the processed meat directly to the customer. Or, if you want to drink raw dairy milk the only way you will generally be able to do so is if you own the cow through some form of ownership design that allows the farmer to take care of the animal but where they do not own it - you do.

Another example is computer software where you wonder whether you even own the software anymore with how intrusive software updates are (shutting down your machine in the middle of doing something). Apple has found a very lucrative model in retaining end-to-end ownership of their hardware and software but many other firms have found lucrative niches in giving away and opensourcing/commons licensing their software and hardware designs.

Finally, back to Peter Barnes and his observation that many corporations are acting as if they own the commons - the air, the water, the roads, and other public resources required to produce and distribute their goods. Their profits come in part because they are not paying sufficiently for the use of commons resources. The day might arrive when the public decides to assert public ownership of these commons resources and charge companies to use them with the revenues circulating back to the public. This is one scheme that could be used to reduce wealth inequality by assigning a price tag to the use of commons resources and distributing the wealth back to a public now asserting common ownership. Of course carbon taxes are a form of this but the revenues are not necessarily being used to reduce wealth inequality as Peter is suggesting we do.

Ownership design is a type of design that is worth adding to your business design toolkit. It has the potential to be as disruptive as any other form of design and can be used to solve problems that arise when a single company tries to own the whole value chain (e.g., Joel selling the animal to the customer before processing it), or are exploiting more than their fair share of commons resources, to create a better environment for workers, and in many other situations that are discussed in Marjorie Kelly's book.


Cool Tools [Design
Posted on May 11, 2015 @ 09:03:00 AM by Paul Meagher

I picked up a cool tool this morning. I got this 8 foot long wood trailer for $60.

The guy I talked to used this to haul firewood logs with his All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) but wasn't using it anymore as he had several other trailers and a tractors to haul wood out with. In my startup vineyard, I have a need for lots of trellis posts and can use this trailer to load and transport the posts (often 9 feet long and made of tamarack). For me, this is a cool tool not only because it satisfies a set of use cases on the farm but because I can drag it behind a truck, a tractor, an ATV, or a lawn tractor, it is light and easy to move around, the fat tires will reduce compaction of the soil from the weight of a load, it has been reinforced for hauling wood and is strong, and unlike my other trailer it doesn't have any electrical wiring which is good if you are taking it into the woods and you intend to use and abuse it. The fact that this is a used item rather than a new item might make this a little bit more of an eco-friendly purchase.

Another cool tool I purchased for mother's day for my wife was this PADERNO Spiral Vegetable Slicer.

My wife is a vegetarian and likes to cook so I was looking for something that she might like given these parameters. After searching some best seller lists on Amazon I found this reasonably priced (less than $60) present for her. My wife started using it immediately to see what it could do with a potato. We made 3 different types of oven fries with it (it has 3 different slicers which are shown in the 2 trays at the bottom and the one tray in use) and they all tasted nice but with different textures. Can make potato chips and curly fries with this device and slices a cucumber up nice for a salad. So far, quite pleased with it. Seems like sturdy plastic construction, compact, and easy to clean. My wife is trying to convince us all to become more vegetarian so this gives her another tool to make great looking vegetable dishes to lure is in.

The main reason I am talking about Cool Tools today is because I want to recommend a 2013 book by Kevin Kelley called Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities.

Here is Kevin's summary of what the book is about:

Cool Tools is a highly curated selection of the best tools available for individuals and small groups. Tools include hand tools, maps, how-to books, vehicles, software, specialized devices, gizmos, websites -- and anything useful. Tools are selected and presented in the book if they are the best of kind, the cheapest, or the only thing available that will do the job. This is an oversized book which reviews over 1,200 different tools, explaining why each one is great, and what its benefits are. Indirectly the book illuminates the possibilities contained in such tools and the whole catalog serves an education outside the classroom. The content in this book was derived from ten years of user reviews published at the Cool Tools website,

The book is self-consciously carrying on the tradition of the pioneering Whole Earth Catalog. Anyone who is an inventor probably would be interested in browsing this book to see the wide selection of cool tools and his criteria for deciding which ones deserve that title. Anyone interested in material culture will also be interested at the scope of material culture displayed in this book. There is a tool for everything. While the book may seem like an encouragement to consume more material culture, it can also be taken as an invitation to consume in a more discriminating way so that you buy less junk. In the end, a cool tool is what you require in your own life to better satisfy some important wants and needs. In my case, I want/need a farm trailer to lug heavy stuff around the fields and in the woods. I also wanted to buy something my wife would actually find an enjoyable use for and was lucky this year to be able to accomplish that with the spiral vegetable slicer. The Cool Tools book might be useful as a guide for xmas presents. It might also be useful as an encyclopedia of tools to review/consider prior to tackling some job. Maybe some tool will give you an idea for how to make the job easier or more efficient.


Sustainable, Resilient & Regenerative Systems [Design
Posted on April 7, 2015 @ 08:46:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The green movement has been successful in making us aware of the need to live more sustainably. Many large corporations now specifically address issues of sustainability in their accounting systems. Many business thinkers have argued that sustainability is not just nice, but can also create competitive advantages for those businesses. The favorable messaging they can put out is one aspect, but simply reducing and eliminating waste and pollution as part of a corporate mandate can introduce considerable cost savings and lead to more innovation.

We all have a basic sense of what sustainability means - that we don't harvest resources in such a way as to reduce the availability of those resources in the future. A sustainable system can run indefinitely and keep providing for humans and other beings.

Sustainability, however, isn't the only goal of the green movement these days. The concepts of resilience and regeneration are discussed more and more these days as positive attributes that our natural and cultural landscapes might benefit from.

Resilience is a system property that leads to those systems being more stable in the face of changing conditions. So resilience is more important these days as a result of things like climate change, water shortages, and economic recession. The goal of many people in the green movement is to design systems that are more resilient in the face of our modern hazards. This may involve planting a diversity of trees where some are more adapted to warmer/dryer conditions and some might be more adapted to cooler/wetter conditions. Whatever might come in the future you are covering off your bases better. Most corporations today don't specifically address the issue of how they are going to be more resilient but this may be just a matter of time.

The third term that I want to discuss is "regenerative" which is another term that is becoming more common in green movement discussions. Whereas those advocating for sustainable and resilient systems might be happy with maintaining the overall status quo, the objective of regenerative design is to create situations of abundance while also being respectful of the environment. Instead of just talking about conserving soil, a regenerative designer would want to talk about building soil so that you can create conditions of more food abundance. A regenerative designer might not be satisfied with a deal that only offers to maintain employment, they would rather see a deal that creates social structures that lead to greater abundance for the workers and community, where abundance is not just monetary but may include other benefits as well (e.g., social solidarity, better safety nets, better commons management, etc...).

It is useful to be able to distinguish between these three types of system properties (sustainable, resilient, regenerative) because green designs might focus on one more than another, or might focus on a couple or all three. It is also useful because it gives us an enlarged vocabulary for evaluating technologies and proposing new technologies.

The ecotopian ideal of many small farmers is to create farms that are sustainable, resilient, and regenerative at the same time. The same ecotopian ideals are often desired by those living in more urban settings. There is a market for ideas and technologies that can satisfy these three demands. Sustainability is not the only game in town. We also like our systems to be resilient and regenerative as well.


Appropriate Tech Resources [Design
Posted on March 25, 2015 @ 08:24:00 AM by Paul Meagher

In my last blog, Appropriate Technology, I defined the term and played with an application of the definition to computing and came up with an idea for labor intensive computing (or bicycle-powered computing).

Since then I have done more research on the topic of appropriate technology. I want to share with you three additional resources that I found useful.

The Shumacher Center for New Economics publishes articles and videos on appropriate technology. Their YouTube Channel publishes presentations taking place at the institute and you can also access old video footage of Fritz Shumacher presentations. Fritz Shumacher wrote the founding book, Small is Beautiful, and this is the first of three short clips by Shumacher on how he arrived at the idea of Appropriate Technology.

The sustainability wiki also has a good section on appropriate technology. It was here that I encountered Paul Polak and his two critical articles on Appropriate Technology efforts to date.

Paul Polak appears to be one of the leading thinkers on appropriate technology today even though he is critical of the business approach used to date. Paul has a website where you can learn more about him and his efforts to combat poverty using a for-profit approach. He publishes interesting blogs, videos, and books. Paul is designing technology for people who make under $2 a day, however, the market for his technology is massive which means it has the potential to be profitable at scale. Paul is doing a type of design that many of us are not familiar with, design for radical affordability, and he claims that this type of design involves adherance to 8 principles. This collection of principles he calls "Zero-Based Design" and you can read more about it on his Design page.

One aspect of Paul's character that intrigues me is that he appears to be incredibly business-saavy. What he has to say about design and product development apply not just to designing products for his target market of extremely low income earners, but to designing products for any market. Here is Paul discussing the importance of designing for a market. It is worth watching.


Appropriate Technology [Design
Posted on March 23, 2015 @ 07:22:00 AM by Paul Meagher

The Wikipedia page on Appropriate Technology defines it as:

Appropriate technology is an ideological movement (and its manifestations) originally articulated as intermediate technology by the economist Dr. Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher in his influential work, Small is Beautiful. Though the nuances of appropriate technology vary between fields and applications, it is generally recognized as encompassing technological choice and application that is small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, and locally controlled. Both Schumacher and many modern-day proponents of appropriate technology also emphasize the technology as people-centered.

These are a nice set of attributes for technology to have.

We can apply this definition to various technologies on the horizon and ask ourselves whether the proposed technology is an "appropriate technology" or not. Given the pace of technological development in A.I related-areas, it can be useful to invoke the "appropriate technology" definition as a way to evaluate technology. Or shall we just accept that if it is new it must be appropriate as well?

We don't have to look into the future to find examples of inappropriate technology, they are all around us. Many would argue that farming has many inappropriate technologies like pesticides, reliance on synthetic fertilizers, and heavy machinery on the landscape, and so on. The design of our urban and suburban landscape also has alot of inappropriate technology such as an over-reliance of cars for transit, methods of heating, methods of building, dedication of productive landscape to lawns, wastewater management, and so on.

The fact that we have so much inappropriate technology represents a large opportunity for entrepreneurs to create appropriate technology. The problem is the solution.

If you create appropriate technology you will have the ability to market that technology using on a long list of favorable adjectives. So appropriate technology is arguably very marketable.

The way of the future is towards appropriate technology as solar and wind technologies continue to supply local capacity to our power grids. The future of renewable power generation is to become more appropriate. The fact that it is renewable energy makes it appropriate, but how the power, money, and employment associated with local power generation is distributed in the local community is where another level of appropriateness comes in.

I want to conclude this blog by zooming in on one aspect of the definition of appropriate technology, namely, the idea that it is "labor intensive". This aspect of appropriate technology can be understood in the context of farming practices and the observation that in countries like India they did not benefit much by adopting modern Western agricultural practices that included big machinery and dependence on non-local sources for pesticides, fertilizers and GMO's to plant (unsustainable debt loads). In the Indian context, smaller scale labor-intensive technology makes more sense and is more sustainable (smaller debt loads). That is not to say, however, that Indian farmers want their work to be labor intensive. It is that you cannot currently avoid it if you want more sustainable systems of food production.

Using computers to make a living involves using a technology that is not labor-intensive unless you count keystrokes as being labor intensive. I wonder if computers could be made more "labor intensive" and therefore more appropriate? The standing desk computers are one attempt to move in this direction, but a more labor intensive computer would be one that you had to generate power for through your own physical exertion. So I googled "bicycled powered computer" and found a few images that I'm sharing with you below.

Are these "appropriate computers"? Perhaps "labor intensive computing" will be the next big thing :-)


Silent Feedback [Design
Posted on March 9, 2015 @ 12:55:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Most people have experienced the "silent treatment" from a friend or partner. We all know that even though the person is silent they are giving us some strong feedback about how they are feeling. We might understand that they disapprove of something but may be at a loss as to what exactly is wrong. We might try various approaches to getting them talking to us again.

We might want to keep this in mind the next time we release a new product, service, or concept to the public. Instead of getting constructive feedback to improve this or that feature, we might instead to get no response at all. It is important to recognize that no response is still feedback and can be very valuable feedback if you accept it as such.

If you release something new and share it with some people and you don't get any feedback, chances are it did not hit the mark with them and rather than burst your bubble, maybe they prefer to say nothing. Perhaps your idea does not really solve a pain point they experience or it does not solve very well the problem you claimed it would help solve. If the person you shared your idea with is not a friend or family member, then it is just as easy for them to say nothing as to provide any negative or constructive feedback.

In various startup books we hear about the importance of releasing early and releasing often and using the feedback to create a better product or service. One problem with this idea is that we are all busy and unless the product or service is solving a real pain point and looks to be on the right track, why would I want to engage in the process of providing ongoing feedback about that product or service? What is in it for me? Maybe that sounds selfish but if you don't respect people's time by releasing half-baked ideas and expecting them to correct you, then you shouldn't be suprised if your efforts to gather feedback are met with a deafening silence.

In some corporate settings we may have a set of "users" who are required to provide feedback and help a designer create a better product or service, but for many projects we don't have this luxury. Instead we might share our product or service with people who would theoretically benefit from the product or service but who are not our friends. In these circumstances we have to actively listen for silence as it may be the only cue they provide as to whether our product or service is worth their time to discuss.

The process of using feedback to help guide you towards developing a better product or service is not as easy as it sounds. Of course there will be customers who will complain about your product or service and you can use that to improve your offerring, but when you are putting something new out there you might not even get complaints as these often arise out of some economic or emotional investment into a product or service that your tester probably does not have at this point.

So if you are putting something out there and expecting some feedback and don't get any, you might think that nothing happened. Alternatively, you can you can view the lack of response as critical feedback that something is amiss. Lately I ran into this situation and gradually understood that the lack of feedback was signalling a problem and proceeded to make an adjustment in my concept and sent the revised concept out again. The second time I did so I got some positive feedback suggesting that I was on the right track. Sometimes the best feedback is no feedback provided you interpret this situation as feedback and take corrective actions. When you can get people talking to you is when you know you are on the right track again. It may not even matter much what they are saying, just whether they are engaging with you or not.

In conclusion, don't interpret an absence of feedback for your concept as no feedback. It is probably negative feedback and can be just as useful in telling you what to do as verbalized feedback. Your ultimate objective is to get some verbalized feedback, but until you do something worthy of some positive feedback, you might not get it.


Startup Design Systems [Design
Posted on February 25, 2015 @ 08:13:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Lately I've been immersing myself in my Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course in an effort to fullfull the design project requirement.

In an effort to get myself motivated I purchased a DVD that consists of audio recordings of Bill Mollison delivering the lecture component of a 1983 PDC course. This was apparently when Bill was at the height of his powers, deeply involved in writing and consulting projects and passing on some of his knowledge and insights. The audio quality is not great, and all his lectures might not be equally interesting to you, but it is consistently sprinkled with interesting and provocative ideas.

Bill Mollison wrote the main book for a PDC course, Permaculture: A Designers Manual, in 1988. Now any time you have to read a 574 page book densely packed with information and need to potentially agree with much of it, you have to ask yourself if you are joining a cult or this is the real deal. I started to have my doubts if it was, but after listening to Bill's lecturing I have to concede that he is someone I want to learn from. Now that this barrier is broken down, I can proceed to get more involved with the book as a source of practical and design insights.

Everybodies journey through Permaculture will be different but if you take the PDC you are at least required to learn a design system for designing landscapes, food production systems, housing, and communities. I'm not saying this is the best design system in the world but I do find it interesting that many of us don't specifically try to learn a design system that would provide us with directives to use so what we might design landscapes, food production systems, housing, and communities better.

The Permaculture design system cannot be explained in a single blog and I doubt you want to hear it from me. I can tell you that learning the design system involves every PDC student knowing how to draw a Zone Map and a Sector Map. Drawing maps exercises parts of my brain that I don't often use - the more visual right-side brain. This is probably a good thing because my left brain works better and gets too much exercise. A design system needs to utilize the right brain.

A Zone Map breaks down a landscape into 5 areas defined by their proximity to your house. The zones are also defined by energy storages (e.g. wells, ponds, streams, animals, trees, shurbs, grasses, vegetables, etc... ) on the landscape and how often you need access to them. So in zone 1 you have your garden and nearby outbuildings and in zone 5 you might have wild forest area meant for observation and learning from. In between you define other zones that don't have to be arranged concentrically around the house, but logically given the form and energy storages on your landscape. The map below is a Zone Map for my farm. Zone 4 is where hay and some wild fruit storages are that I visit infrequently. Zone 3 is where the vineyard and orchards that I visit more frequently are (aeriel map is before they were installed) and so on.

A Sector Map identifies how energies of various types flow through your landscape (e.g., sun, wind, water, wildlife, heat, contours, people, etc...). Whereas a Zone Map is more about energy storages and access, a Sector Map is more about energy flow so that you might design ways to capture or deflect those energies.

The ideas of mapping energy storage and energy flow are sufficiently abstract that you could ask yourself if you can create zone maps and sector maps for an office, for a business, or for a city. Zone and sector Maps work well for planning a farmscape, and increasingly, cityscapes, but what about yardscape, the officescape, or the marketscapes?

So when we start a business or plan its growth, is there are any benefit to adopting a specific design system that would provide guidance to our practice? In the case of startups, one design system that is increasingly viewed as providing guidance is Lean Startup theory. Like Permaculture, there are some foundational Lean Startup theory texts that provide guidance in designing startups. Like Permaculture, knowing Lean Startup theory is no guarantee that you will be successful in your practice (e.g., climate and weather can play havoc) but it probably increases the odds of success versus having no startup design system.

The Lean Startup design system is one that you could specifically try to follow, just like many programmers often try to follow Agile Methodology of one type or another based on some foundational texts.

One question that nags at me however is that maybe some design systems are better than others (or more suited to your personality). Some Lean Startup theory is definitely useful but I also see some of it as derivable from Permaculture design principles (but not vice versa). I see the Permaculture design system as more general probably because the principles try to abstractly identify what makes sustainable systems work and how to design them.

That being said, Lean Startup theory is currently the preferred design system for startups (taught as the startup design system in many business courses) but I think you'll be seeing more about using Permaculture design principles for startups as a result of the upcoming Permaculture Voices convergence (March 4-8). One design system does not have to succeed at the expense of another, learning both may be better than only learning one.


Business Ecosystems [Design
Posted on January 14, 2015 @ 12:37:00 PM by Paul Meagher

This will be the third blog in my series on Ecological Business Design. In my first blog, Ecological Business Design, I introduced the idea and it's possible benefits. In my second blog, Find Your Niche, I tried to demonstrate that the ecological concept of a "Niche" might be useful for thinking about how to design a business. The ecological concept of a niche is more evolved than the business use of that term and provides a cluster of useful concepts for thinking about the market for your business and how to manage it over time.

In today's blog I want to explore another central concept in ecology called tropism, which is also related to the concept of a food web, which in turn is central to defining what an ecosystem consists of. Many business writers and academics like to talk about the startup ecosystem, an innovation ecosystem, or simply a business ecosystem. It is quite sexy and accepted to do so. The problem I have with many of these articles and papers is that concepts from ecology actually play very little role in their theoretical approach so the authors should have simply used the term "system" instead of "ecosystem" (or no reference to "system" at all). One recent example, is White Paper: Announcing 5 Ingredients For Fostering A Thriving Startup Ecosystem. In this paper the author argues for the importance of 5 ingredients for creating an environment for startup success: talent, density, culture, capital, and regulatory environment. I have no issues with any of these suggested ingredients or their importance, however, I fail to see the motivation for using the term "ecosystem" to characterize this list of ingredients.

What more do we need in order to legitimately use the phrase business ecosystem (or startup ecosystem or innovation ecosystem)?

In my opinion you need to incorporate the concepts of tropism and food chains into your discussion. An ecosystem is not just a juxtaposition of elements (or ingredients) existing within an environment. Those elements have specific types of energetic relationships to each other. These energetic relationships are often hierarchical and are referred to as the tropic levels of the ecosystem. At the base level there are "producers" such as plants which provide the foundation for all the tropic levels of the system. The next tropic level is a "consumer" of these plants, namely, a herbivore of some sort. That herbivore in turn may be consumed by an omnivore or carnivore called a "secondary consumer" which in turn may be consumed by another carnivore higher up in the food chain. Each level in the food chain involves a loss of energy as only a fraction of the biomass from the level below it is converted into the biomass of a consumer occupying the next level up in the food chain. The hierarchy is not strict because an omnivore, for example, can feed both from the base level of the food chain (the producer level) and some level of consumer organism below it. Because the hierarchy is not strict we might be inclined to call it a food web rather than a food chain. Nevertheless, there is still some notion of tropic levels in a food web as we can analyze each organism in terms of what it eats and what eats it.

The top level species in the food chain is called the apex predator, however, we need to be careful here because ecosystems do not tend to have neat linear orderings like the levels of a hierarchy in a government organization. Ecosystems are more likely to have a circular or cyclic arrangement and the way ecosystems do this is by having another type of component in them called "decomposers". So the apex predator dies, or is killed by some unfortunate accident, and is in turn eaten by a host of micro-organisms from bacteria, to larvae, to beetles. Although we can talk about some organism as being the top of the food chain, that organism eventually gets recycled into the food web through the action of decomposers who might be viewed as occupying the top of the food chain if they weren't so tiny. The notion of their being a "top" of the food chain can be problematic depending on how you view the role of "decomposers".

To summarize so far, my claim is that if you want to use the term "ecosystem" as a metaphor to think about how your business might fit within the larger business environment, then you need to think about where you fit within a chain of producers, consumers, and decomposers. Furthermore, you should consider what level you are at with respect to the base level of the system (the producers) and what that might entail in terms of how much energy/profit you can extract out of the system. There are usually not more than 5 tropic levels in a food chain as there is progressively less energy available at each higher level. The quality of the energy at higher levels in the food chain is more concentrated so supplies more energy per unit consumed, however, there are fewer units at higher levels. To use the term "ecosystem" to characterize the landscape of a business entails, in my opinion, identification of analogues for producers, consumers, and decomposers in the system and the tropic levels each of these entities occupies in the system. It might also involve thinking in terms of circular arrangements rather than just linear arrangements of these entities. Most business writers don't go this far when they use the term "ecosystem" which makes me wonder whether they are justified in using the term as these types of relationships are foundational when thinking about what an ecosystem consists of. The species (or biotic) elements of an ecosystem are not simply juxtaposed next to each other but have specific energetic (or tropic) relationships to each other.

In 1942, the theoretical ecologist Raymond Lindeman died before his last and most influential paper was published (he died tragically young at 27) called The Tropic-Dynamic Aspect of Ecology. It had a huge impact on ecology and highlighted the importance of using energetic relationships, or tropic levels, to organize thinking about what an ecosystem consists of. One of the reasons the paper is still worth reading is because it contains a very interesting and useful diagram that summarized his understanding of what a lake ecosystem consists off. It illustrates all the ideas that are discussed in this blog - producers, consumers, decomposers, circular (or cycling) arrangements, and tropic levels. The tropic levels in this diagram are indicated by the upside down "v" beside the different levels which denotes the efficiency of the energy conversion at each level (how much of the consumed food is converted to biomass). Depictions of food webs in today's textbooks are somewhat dumbed down compared to Lindeman's own representation of what a food web in a lake ecosystem consists off. Lindeman's own diagram was an evolution from other diagrams he referenced in his thesis (each one trying to capture what an ecosystem consisted of).

In conclusion, ecological business design involves analyzing the big picture of where your business will fit within the context of other businesses and the environment. There are many ways to formulate the "big picture" but if you want to do it using ecological concepts and ideas, then that arguably involves thinking in terms of consumers, producers, decomposers, tropic levels, and cycling arrangements. Lindeman's diagram of a lake ecosystem is suggestive of the type of understanding you might want to strive for when thinking about how your business fits into the big picture, the business ecosystem. I'm not claiming that this is easy to do, but I am suggesting that if want to use the term ecosystem to characterize your business environment it should include some of these ideas otherwise there is not much benefit in using the term ecosystem to describe it. This exercise in defining your business ecosystem is not guaranteed to make your business more money, but it might produce some useful insights because it offers a technique for thinking about the bigger picture of your business in a different and unique way, a way that is grounded in and guided by ecological theory, ideas, and observations.

Note: An entity called "Ooze" appears in the center of Lindeman's diagram. Ooze actually has a scientific meaning and there are several different types of ooze. Lindeman wasn't being mystical here although the central role of ooze in lake ecosystems seems somewhat counterintuitive. Ooze might be similiar to soil in land-based ecosystems.


Ecological Business Design [Design
Posted on January 5, 2015 @ 02:45:00 PM by Paul Meagher

Over the holidays, the main book I've been reading is Principles of Ecological Landscape Design (2013) by Travis Beck.

The basic idea is to design landscapes according to ecological principles because such landscapes are more resilient, less costly to manage, provide more ecosystem services, are more attuned to local environmental conditions, and are more sustainable. Each chapter of the book examines major ecological principles and uses those principles to suggest ways to design a landscape. What I like about the book is that it takes the idea of "learning from nature" and makes it makes it very concrete by discussing different ecological principles along with the relevant research to back up those principles and then goes about suggesting how these principles might inspire us to design landscapes in ways that might be different from the ways we currently designed landscapes.

The idea of designing landscapes in a way that obeys ecological principles is an idea that is becoming increasingly accepted in urban planning and landscape design. The way in which we manage stormwater in cities, for example, is often to run pipes underground to carry surface runoff away to some ultimate discharge point. We are building the equivalent of streams underground to deal with surface runoff and often these systems can be easily overwhelmed by larger rain events that are happening more frequently (in some parts of the world) as climate change expresses itself in increased climatic variability (i.e, larger rainfall events). Under normal circumstances a wetland would handle surface runoff for us and would also handle many of the pollutants coming from surface runoff better (i.e., capture and filtration) than a simple stormwater system (i.e., capture only). So a better way to design stormwater systems would be to use ecological design to construct the equivalent of wetlands to handle surface runoff. The diagram below is from the acclaimed Menomonee Valley Stormwater Park project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and gives you an idea of how ecological design principles can be used to better handle stormwater. Their ecological design approach also created a great visual attraction for the city, namely, the Stormwater Park area.

So the topic I want to explore in some upcoming blogs is whether there is any benefit to using ecological concepts to think about business design. Can concepts from ecology provide a useful perspective for designing not just landscapes but also businesses? Are ecological concepts such as tropic levels, succession, biodiversity, resource partitioning, and so on useful for thinking not just about how to design a landscape, but also how to design a business? One reason for thinking these ecological concepts might be useful is because they are terms for characterizing the workings of whole systems rather than how individual parts of a system work in isolation from each other. Systems thinking is often useful in business and one way to potentially develop more systems thinking expertise is to try to apply concepts from ecology to business.


What is Wabi-Sabi? [Design
Posted on March 27, 2014 @ 08:18:00 AM by Paul Meagher

Yesterday I first encountered the Japanese aesthetic concept of Wabi-Sabi. It seems like a word that North American's should have in their vocabulary for a variety of reasons so I thought I would blog a bit on it today.

Wikipedia defines Wabi-Sabi as a "comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection... Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity (roughness or irregularity), simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes".

According to Richard Powell, Wabi-Sabi "nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect".

The concept of Wabi-Sabi was introduced to North Americans by Leonard Koren in 1994 in the small monograph "Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers" published by Stone Bridge Press. You can also read a recent article by Koren entitled The Beauty of Wabi-Sabi. Since Koren introduced the concept, it has started to take root in North America but seems to be becoming more popular in recent times.

The idea of seeing beauty in the flawed, the worn out, and the unfinished contrasts with the Western ideal of beauty which often embraces perfection as a central aspect. Because Wabi-Sabi finds beauty in the old and rusted, it has sometimes been called a poverty aesthetic, an aesthetic which is democratic and which everyone can partake of if they have the proper frame of mind to appreciate it. It is not a beauty which inheres in the object itself. It is a form of mindful appreciation of objects and what makes them authentic.

Everyone from Martha Stewart to Environmentalists wants us to embrace the old, worn, and imperfect without really having a useful aesthetic vocabulary to justify why. The idea of Wabi-Sabi can help provide a vocabulary and conceptual underpinning.

The purpose of this blog is not to sound like an authority on the concept of Wabi-Sabi as I've been aware of it for exactly one day. My research, however, leads me to believe that it is an important idea worth exploring; one that can serve a variety of useful roles in designing objects, appreciating objects, people, and projects, and in dealing with life. This is an invitation to do your own research and to develop your own conception of what Wabi-Sabi means.

The beauty of Wabi-Sabi is different than our predominant North American conception of beauty as perfection typified, for example, in a range of Apple products. If our concept of beauty were to shift in the direction of Wabi-Sabi, this could potentially have profound consequences for western consumer culture - perhaps slowing consumerism down and changing our consumer preferences.

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
- John Keats, Ode to a Grecian Urn.




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