Observation is an underrated skill, and one that is in great demand for those in pursuit of wicked problems.
By Matthew E. May
OBSERVE FIRST, DESIGN SECOND:
TAMING THE TRAPS OF TRADITIONAL THINKING
THE IMPOVERISHED ECONOMY in rural northern Nigeria is based on subsistence farming. The large population inhabiting the many isolated communities survives by growing, consuming and selling fruits and vegetables nourished by the many streams and rivers that flow into Lake Chad. However, the arid heat of the semi-desert geography presents a significant problem: rapid food decay. Perishables last no more than a few days before spoiling. The solution would seem easy enough: refrigeration. But ...view middle of the document...
Faced with daunting constraints, Abba thought long and hard. Then he remembered, from his youth, clay pots that had been central to the lives of northern Nigerians. Once used for
everything from cooking to coffins, the pots had since been replaced by more modern aluminum and plastic containers. But they hadn’t disappeared entirely, and neither had the indigenous skills used to shape them; Abba remembered the basics of traditional claywork that his grandmother had taught him. He also remembered enough of his secondary-school Science to hit upon an idea: cooling by evaporation – nature’s way of dropping the temperature a few degrees. Abba’s idea for storing vegetables? Clay pots. Or rather, double clay pots. The solution couldn’t be simpler: place one pot inside another; fill the gap with something moist enough to keep both pots damp – like wet river sand; and cover the inner pot with a wet cloth. As the moisture in the gap evaporates from the outer pot toward the dry outside air, the inner pot cools, with the wet sand playing the dual role of insulating the inner pot. The drop in temperature of several degrees chills the contents of the inner pot, killing potentially-harmful microorganisms that flourish only at higher temperatures. The end result: Abba’s pot-within-a-pot desert cooler kept contents a dozen degrees cooler than the surrounding air. Instead of lasting for three days, eggplants stayed fresh for nearly a month; peppers and tomatoes stayed ripe for three weeks, and spinach lasted twelve days instead of one. Today, farmers and traders use these desert coolers to store their produce at home and sell it – fresh – at a good price to the 100,000 customers of the Dutse Market. Now that they’re able to sell on demand, their income levels have noticeably risen. The invention has also freed young girls to attend school, because they no longer have to worry about traveling far and wide every day. Furthermore, married women can now contribute to household income by making soft drinks – called zobo – and selling them from the coolers. This extra income is often used to buy soap and other essentials. Abba’s solution captured the attention of the world and received numerous awards and accolades. By 2006, well over 100,000 desert coolers had been sold and distributed throughout Nigeria, and an adapted version is now being used to preserve insulin vials for diabetic patients in remote rural areas. This is a prime example of how to solve a wicked problem with an elegant solution. But let’s see how fiendishly difficult it can be to apply similar thinking to a far simpler challenge.
Please Be Kind, Rewind
winding the tape. According to comment cards, this situation is a great source of customer dissatisfaction amongst ‘conscientious rewinders’. You’ve tried a number of things to solve the problem: incentives, penalties, ‘be kind, rewind’ reminders – you’ve even installed a row of rewinding machines in the store. Nothing has improved the...