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Thailand Flood Hacks. Plastic Bottles, Expatiation and Innovation

Contributed by Chris Bolton from the Good Practice Exchange, Wales Audit Office

Everything is wrong with this picture. There is no cat I’ve ever known that would permit me (or anyone else) to:

  1. Put a vest on it,
  2. Sew plastic water-bottles into the vest, and
  3. Sit around to have its picture taken wearing the offending garment (it does have its back to the camera though).

 

Thai Flood Hacks. To be fair to the cat these were unusual circumstances and this may have been a concession until normal ‘cat like’ behaviour could be resumed.

The floods that inundated Thailand in 2011 were a disaster that caused death, suffering and huge economic damage. In response to extreme circumstances people will often do extraordinary things to save lives or make everyday living a little bit easier. Necessity, frequently is, the Mother of Invention.

To help share the knowledge about some of the clever solutions that people created a site called Thai Flood Hacks sprang up in 2011 (link here). Basically people ‘hacked’ what they had available and used it for variety of purposes to alleviate the dangers posed by the rising flood waters. The ‘hacks’ covered a numbers of areas including:

  • protecting life (plastic bottle vests for cats and dogs)
  • protecting property (huge plastic bags for cars) and
  • getting about in the flood water (modified vehicles and plastic bottle boats).

Two things stand out for me on the site; just how much you can do with a plastic bottle and, the emergence of exaptation.

 

What is Exaptation? The most basic explanation of exaptation (I understand) is: something that has been created for a specific purpose, is picked up and is used for a completely different purpose.

The idea originates in biology and was first introduced to me by Dave Snowden who has written about it here.

Examples from biology include the idea of feathers, originally developed as a cooling mechanism, before being exapted for the purpose of flight.

Another good example is the electromagnetic radiation that ‘leaked’ from early radar equipment, melted the chocolate bar in Engineer Percy Spencer’s pocket, and was eventually exapted into the microwave oven. You can see the full story in the video below.

 

Video Link: Radar – Father of the Microwave Oven

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4h1ESUz2H3E

 

When you look at the Thai Flood hacks site you can see some very clear examples of exaptation, things successfully used for purposes they were never intended for. It’s not all imaginative uses of plastic bottles. Protecting your car from the floodwaters by driving it into the large plastic bag your sofa was delivered in is genius.

 

You can do anything with a plastic bottle. I’ve got to talk about plastic drinks bottles for a moment. If you have looked at the Thai Flood Hacks site you will see they feature a lot. I suppose that once you’ve made the link between the need to stay afloat and the abundance of plastic containers that hold air, there is no end of uses you can put them to.

The fun with plastic bottles doesn’t end there though. I’ve been browsing the internet for ‘interesting / alternative uses for plastic bottles’. There are absolutely dozens of things you can do with a plastic bottle and a little imagination. Have a look at this article on life hack.org; 30 Ways to Upcycle Plastic Bottles, lots of alternative uses, but are they really exaptation?

 

The Trouble With Exaptation. The problem with exaptation is that it is incredibly difficult to plan for. How do you know that electromagnetic radiation is going to be useful for warming your lunch? How do you make that leap between having a drink of water and tying the empty bottles onto the side of your dog?

A lot of exaptation comes down to about four things as far as I can understand; deep curiosity, wide diversity, the willingness to experiment and acceptance of mess and failure:

  • Deep Curiosity. Continually asking the question why and looking for new answers might just lead you to the answer you never thought of.
  • Wide Diversity. The more sand you sift the more likely you are to find a diamond.
  • Experimentation. When you spot an opportunity, test to see if it might work.
  • Accepting the Mess. This is unlikely to be a process where everything goes to plan and often fails.

 

I spoke about this challenge at the All Wales Continuous Improvement Community recently where I offered a few suggestions around how you might ‘normalise innovation’ and have a better chance of spotting exaptation opportunities. These included:

In addition there is some work happening at the Cynefin Centre in Bangor University to put some structure around the area which has been called; Managing for Emergence or Managing for Serendipity. More of that in future posts, but this slideshare from Marc Rettig on Managing Emergence gives a good idea of some of the challenges.

 

In Summary

  1. Necessity can be the Mother of Invention. Extreme situations can lead to some incredible innovations and exaptation.
  2. Exaptation is difficult to ‘manage’. How do you plan for the unknown? Is it possible to create an environment where exaptation flourishes?
  3. Activities like hackathons and crowdsourcing can create the environment where ideas flow and there is opportunity for expatiation to emerge. The trick is recognising it.

 

Chris can be contacted on Chris.Bolton@audit.wales, Twitter – @whatsthepont

 

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