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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Innovation

Lessons From the Ice Breaker Kapitan Khlebnikov

Scarcity is the mother of innovation

Published: Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 12:03

One of the biggest drivers for innovation is scarcity—of resources, time, even knowledge. Necessity and scarcity drive you to look at your approach differently than when you are surrounded by abundance. Forced to use different methods and tools, you improvise, you MacGyver, and the result is often a far more novel approach. I thought about this while listening to an interview with Canadian singer/songwriter Danny Michel on the CBC radio show q.

At the invite of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadley, Michel and several other artists spent 18 days on the Russian ice breaker Kapitan Khlebnikov as part of Hadley’s Generator project. For his part, Michel set a goal to record a complete album during those 18 days. No cushy soundproof studio with a million bucks in gear and an engineer; just two microphones, a laptop, Pro Tools, and two guitars. His studio? A room about the size of a walk-in closet that he shared with another person, baffled with hanging bath robes. The result was the album Khlebnikov, part soundscape, part lyrical travelogue, altogether moving, and like nothing he has ever done.

Certainly the experience itself fueled Michel’s writing; he says as much in several interviews. But the environment and the way the album was produced had at least as much effect. For instance, there was no controlling odd sounds from getting onto the recording, so he left them in, adding to the ambience. Sometimes he sampled the sounds and used them as part of a composition. He recruited Russian-speaking Hadley—a singer/songwriter as well as an astronaut—and a couple of Russian dishwashers as vocalists (“Fall” and “Dishwasher's Dream”). Producer Rob Carli added brass and strings in post production, which caused a later personal innovation for Michel: playing with a live orchestra in follow-up tours (using different local symphonies at each venue). None of this would have happened without putting himself into a position of scarcity.

Most of us aren’t able to take three weeks off to visit a remote location geared up with only a slide rule, a pencil, and a Vernier caliper. But we can still take away some lessons from Michel’s experience that we can use when trying to shake up our brain in the search for innovative ideas.

First, change your environment. Work in a different location, something away from your normal setting. If not to work, then to think about your task in foreign or even uncomfortable surroundings. Visit an art gallery, a museum, or the symphony. Even if you don’t like art or classical music. In fact, it’s even better if you don’t. Think about why people might like the art that you don’t like. What’s happening there? What do they see that you don’t? That process can change the way you view your task. I remember being on a docent-lead tour of a modern art gallery. We encountered what I thought was just a complete mess of red and black scribbles. It was chaotic and messy. The docent told us to just stare at it for a bit. Eventually, one person thought she saw a head, another legs, another imagined that the red might be blood... and then it just popped off the canvas. It was a woman giving birth... chaotic and messy. Sometimes the details are hidden, and you have to be still and let them come to you.

Change your perspective. The experience of visiting the mummies of Qilakitsoq is reflected in Michel’s melancholy “Homeless.” It’s one thing to read about an event or see pictures, quite another to see it in person, in context. Emotional experiences can change the way you look at your own problems, even engineering ones. Sometimes jogging our emotional perspectives with art or history, or even volunteering at a hospital or soup kitchen, can alter our analytical perspectives. Have you looked at your problem from the perspective of the end user, or a person for whom the product failed, or the person who has to assemble or test it? Better yet, have you considered all perspectives?

Go with the flow. Unable to control his sound environment, Michel embraced it. Sometimes you can’t fight what you’re handed to work with. So don’t fight it. Use it, integrate it, turn it upside down or inside out, reimagine it. Just because it has to be included doesn’t mean it has to be used as delivered.

Work with the knowledge you have. I am probably the worst when it comes to researching projects to death. But there is a place and a time. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to tell yourself, “This is what I know right now; how do I use it to the best of my ability?” How many old-time machinists do you know who can work magic using vintage 1950s equipment? It’s not always what you know—it’s how you use what you know. Getting away from technology and the almighty Google will force you to use the knowledge and skills you already have.

Reduce your tools. Michel had just the basics. What would you do if all you had were the basics? Maybe just a paper and pencil. No computer, no internet, no cell phone. Just you, your thoughts, and something to write them down on. When technology does all the work for us, our brain gets lazy. When you strip your tools down to the basics and get rid of the computer-enhanced, do-it-for-you technology, you relearn how to use basic tools in new ways.

Reinvent the wheel. Go ahead. In the end, you might not use your wheel, but you will learn a lot in the process. And the next time you need a wobbly wheel, you will know what it takes to make one.

Above all, fail. Rinse and repeat. No output should be perfect the first time. If it is, you didn’t stretch yourself enough.

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About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.