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Thursday, June 17, 2004

Flowerpot Cooking and Economic Growth

Network Sociologist Ronald Burt says that the way to be creative is to steal ideas from outside your social network. "The trick is, can you get an idea which is mundane and well known in one place to another place where people would get value out of it." For example, the human resources department might benefit from adapting processes already used by the marketing department.

Economists studying economic growth, economic history, and the "agglomeration economies" that come from firms clustering near one another often make similar points. Most productivity growth comes not so much from works of genius, but from small innovations, often borrowed from other firms and industries.

I'm currently reading geeky cook Alton Brown's "I'm Just Here for the Food," which turns out to be full of fascinating examples of innovations borrowed from other fields. One of his ideas is to use a hair-dryer as a bellows, to inject oxygen into a barbecue, making a more intense fire. Another (from Alton Brown, but not this particular book) is to use an infrared thermometer, a tool developed for inspecting car radiators, to measure the temperature of a hot pan.

A third example is the dominance of the Ford auto company in the manufacture of charcoal. "Up until the 1950s, you could only buy Kingsford charcoal...in Ford dealerships," writes Brown. Apparently, Ford used to produce lots of wood chips as a byproduct of auto manufacture, many of the Ford executives liked to camp, and viola! They hit on the idea of turning the wood chips into charcoal.

Oh, and the flowerpots? They make great dutch ovens.

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