Don Norman’s provocative statement that technology drives human needs and hence, innovation, is, in turn, driving a fantastic intellectual conversation about the interplay of invention and culture. In his comment on my blog and in his own cool and provocative essay, Don challenges anyone to come up with a piece of design research that led to a game-changing technology. I’d like to take up that challenge, Don.
Here goes: I’m old enough to remember starvation. When I was a kid, I remember the annual or semi-annual starvation that wracked Asia (I bet you also remember your mother telling you to eat all the food on your plate because there were starving children in China, right?)
When I joined the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines in the late sixties, starvation still loomed. The Philippines itself was constantly troubled by having to import rice to feed its growing population. I went to Pampanga and other provinces in central Luzon and saw this for myself. So did many researchers from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations who were studying how rice and wheat farmers in Asia were growing their crops. They took this research, this ethnographic/scientific research, back to their labs in Los Banos and developed hybrid rice varieties that doubled and tripled the yields. They ended starvation in the world (except for that which wars and conflict are responsible for).
For me, the social need here was for more food. There were technologies around (humans have been into animal husbandry and culling seeds for higher productivity for as long as they seem to be around) that were suggestive but the hybrids were newly developed and revolutionary breakthroughs that changed the game. Farmers were brought to Los Banos to engage with the researchers in conversations about water and fertilizer, water buffalos and Japanese paddy tractors. Technology was socialized, there were many iterations, testing, failing, and process. Innovation resulted.
This was long before I got involved in design. But it formed my thinking about the role of culture in innovation and the dialogue between technology and society.