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Thinking about better mousetraps and the Maker Generation

Do you ever read Make Magazine? If you don’t, you should. You’re missing out. Take this article for example, from the October 2007 issue. A simple, brief piece about using everyday household objects to build non-lethal mousetraps.

The article in turn leads to Roger Arquer’s site, who then gives us a taxonomy of humane household-item-based mousetraps, shown below,  along with detailed examples:

[Incidentally, going along to Thorsten van Elten's site, referenced above, is also worthwhile.] It’s also worth looking at the 16 comments on the original Make article; the conversation is useful, markedly different from the garbage you get on some of the popular sites, immortalised in the “Brandon Mylenek” Onion article from a couple of years ago, shown briefly below:

By all means read the whole Onion article here, but do make sure you aren’t eating or drinking anything while you do so: I don’t want to be responsible for the accidents that may ensue. Back to the mousetraps. One of Roger Arquer’s more intriguing designs was this one:

Bulb, open neck, heavy base, kept in equilibrium by the weight of the nut. Mouse goes in, dislodges nut, bulb straightens, job done. So five years later, ostensibly influenced by Roger’s design (though ideas can and do happen serendipitously in parallel), someone comes up with this:

Humane: the mouse (or even, for that matter, the gerbil modelling the device’s usage) does not get harmed. Safe: Nothing that can trap a child’s fingers or cause a child to be hurt. Durable and long-lasting: No moving parts at all. Judo-like: The only energy expended is by the mouse while trapping itself. Global: Nothing in the design that makes it hard to produce the device in Seattle, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Seoul or Sierra Leone. And you can get under the hood: No sealed components to worry about, nothing you can’t fix or repair yourself. Cheap: Anyone can make a workable variant using everyday household materials. A “maker” solution. [I haven't been able to check the patent position, but it would be oh-so-fantastic to find out that the patent was Creative Commons based. If any reader knows the answer, please let me know.]

Design has always been about building better mousetraps. What’s changed is that the success criteria look different. Now we have to concern ourselves a lot more with safety, with usability, with sustainability. Not that earlier designers didn’t do so; it’s just that the priorities have changed. About a year ago, over dinner with friend and namesake MR Rangaswami and his close friend CK Prahalad, who, sadly, passed away a couple of months ago. At the dinner, “CK” spent some time talking about the ideas that later became this seminal article on sustainable innovation. I would strongly recommend that you read it: CK, MR and Ram Nidomolu tackle some very important themes within it. One of the ideas that CK mentioned was that of a washing machine with a special microchip. A microchip with a simple and specific purpose: remember the “state” of the machine, the cycle being performed. Why? So that a restart could be carried out from the right point. Doesn’t sound very innovative or useful? That means you haven’t really been to India. A country where “power cuts” and “load shedding” are common, where whole swathes of city lose power for a few hours when demand greatly exceeds supply and the available power gets rationed. In such an environment, restarting washing machines from scratch would be a real waste. [Yes, you can argue that the washing machine itself is a waste, and that DIY dhobis are required, but that's for another post.] Wonder what a dhobi is? This wonderful photograph, by Elishams, will show you:

Thinking about India and sustainability brings something else to mind. My sister and her family are visiting the UK right now, we’re going to see Crosby, Stills and Nash in concert at the Royal Albert Hall tonight. The family were over for dinner last night, and we were reminiscing. [I have four siblings, and we haven't all been together in one place since 1982; we're hoping to fix that soon.] The conversation meandered quite a bit; one of the things it touched on was the streetside tea we used to enjoy in Calcutta as children and young adults. Cue the “matka”:

Photo courtesy VijayKumarBalaji

The matka. What wonderful memories. Early morning walks around the maidan in the mist, gentle conversations with friends, matkas of adhrak chai (ginger-spiced tea), with the matka flung in gay abandon into the nearby ditch when done. Makes me think. It’s been decades since I first heard the term “biodegradable”, decades of plastic bags and plastic containers and plastic everything. What is it with us that we avoid doing anything about such things? What makes us care so little? Have you ever read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring? It’s hard to believe that by the time the next Olympics comes along, that book is going to be 50 years old. Yet we do so little. I think it’s all changing with the new generation, they come into our wasteful lives with different attitudes; they care about the avoidance of unnecessary packaging; they are natively, intuitively better stewards of their environment. Stewardship. Something we’re going to have to do a lot more about in design, by design. Talking about design again, one more book you should read is Tim Brown’s Change By Design. Excellent. Must review it soon, been meaning to do that for about a year now. Sustainability in design comes in many shapes. Nowadays, when I cook food, I make a point of piling up the packaging waste that accompanies the food ingredients; over time, that has allowed me to become smarter at buying ingredients that don’t come with stupid packaging. And I’m not alone in this: half the world’s consumers would give up convenience packaging to help the environment, according to Nielsen. So. In summary. There’s a new generation out there. There are new problems out there. And in between there’s design. Design of things that will sustain; things that are cheap to build; things you can repair yourself; things that aren’t wasteful in energy or even packaging; things that don’t harm other living creatures. Things that are easy and convenient to use. We’ve spoken a long time about building better mousetraps. The Maker Generation are doing something about it.

The Maker Generation. Their time has come.

Posted in Maker Generation.


6 Responses

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  1. Paul Downey says

    Nice read and nice finds, JP! I love the traps!

    One slight niggle: as I'm sure you realise, patents and copyright are quite different animals, so a patent based on creative commons doesn't scan well, well at least to me.

    Something Andrew and I have been learning about at Osmosoft are ways of collaborating on contraptions. It's somewhat mirky thanks to there not being the same copyright/copyleft judo throw for patents. this is exactly the kind of challenge we set up http://oshug.org to explore and Andrew Katz, a lawyer and speaker at our second event, has some interesting and promising work in this area: http://oshug.org/event/2

  2. jobsworth says

    Thanks Paul, I was thinking more in terms of the model patent licence agreement that CC were developing. Do a search on the site and you will see what I mean. I should have made it clearer….

  3. DE says

    I like the judo like traps – only the energy from the mouse is used to trap it. The same logic used by credit card companies.

  4. aseemseth says

    Thank you
    Have subscribed to the make blog

    As anticipated the ckp article on hbr is paid …till date …. so much for Democratisation ….

    But hope springs eternal, and I hope to find a free version soon!

    Thank you once again

  5. charlesfrith says

    Lovely.

  6. Prakash says

    Nice post. These things seems to go like a pendulum – but each time the pendulum returns to the starting point it is for a different reason. People used Matkas/Banana leaves back then because they had no other option. Today people do it because it’s novel and ‘cool’ . Electronic media especially the internet has helped popularize grandmother remedies and ideas at viral velocity giving a boost to the maker gen.



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