Tag Archives: innovation

How to and why not

Get perfect results every time! Fix your life in these ten easy steps! There’s nothing like a How To book for telling you stuff, but is it doing us any good? To poke this notion around I’m going to focus on the topic of cooking, but I think the implications are much wider.

I do a lot of cooking and baking from scratch, seldom following recipes. I often look at recipes for ideas and inspiration, and I might follow one closely the first time I do it if there are delicate bits, but mostly that’s not how I work. I like to learn theories and apply them as they suit me.

I have noticed that it is normal for books on cooking and baking to contain lots of obscure ingredients. Things I don’t keep on hand, can’t easily find. Their presence can persuade a person that cooking is not for them. Most instructional books are really dogmatic also. They often have introductions that say if you don’t follow this exactly, all bets are off. Having spent years swapping round ingredients, using more and less of almost anything if I haven’t got enough, or like it a lot… the results tend to be wholly edible.

What cookery books teach us is that food should come out the same every time. Like pre-packaged food. It’s not about personal creativity, innovation or using up what was left in the fridge, it’s about following instructions. It’s about imposing the dubious standards of industrialisation on our home life. Most of us will not create exactly the same results each time even when we’re trying, and may be persuaded that we’re better buying more mass produced stuff rather than enjoying our own cooking.

If you follow recipes, you can’t grab what’s on offer or in season, you have to buy ingredients for the recipe. That’s a lot of extra faff, and requires forward planning. If you can pick up what looks good and improvise with it, cooking is more fun, more efficient, and requires less thinking. Weary people are not easily persuaded to take long ingredients lists to supermarkets and so proper cooking becomes something you do on special occasions, and the rest of the time, it’s easier to buy sauces in jars, pre-prepared things and stick to what you know. This costs more, and results in a bland, impersonal diet.

Mass produced food is always the same. Our cookery books can encourage us to accept that this is the standard to aspire to. Not that mass produced food is a bit bland and obvious, but that our own cooking should emulate it. Never mind what’s in season, or out of season. No room is left for imagination, innovation or play. Just follow the instructions to get perfect results every time.


The joys of good inventions

I can sound like a luddite sometimes, and it would be fair to say that I have mixed feelings about modern technology. I am very fond of the internet, and of the things I own, the netbook I’m typing this on is of particular value to me. Not that I own much hi-tech stuff. There are some kinds of technology that seem to be made purely so that someone can sell you a new thing. Many of them do nothing for me. I get far more excited about inventions that have genuine impact, aren’t just a faster version of an old thing with more bells and whistles than I have any use for at all. Technology that uses less energy than old ways of doing is a win, technology that enables new creativity. If they make 3d printers that run on old food packaging, then, and only then will I be wildly excited about them.

It’s snowing here today. As a child, snow was a source of fear. I was born with my feet pressed back against my shins, as a result my ankles are dodgy and I spent my childhood falling over a lot. Snow, ice, even frost, increased the risk of falling, and I never really enjoyed snow as a consequence. This stayed with me right up until 4 years ago, when my brother discovered and introduced me to a thing. Microspikes. Also known as fell runners crampons. A rubber upper that slips over the boot or shoe, and on the underside, chains and little metal teeth. They’re designed for those gloriously mad people who want to run over mountainous terrain in adverse conditions. Lightweight, fairly low tech, but absolutely life changing. I can walk in the snow without any need to worry, and that makes it possible to enjoy the snow rather than being mired in fear.

Every year, elderly people, especially women with brittle bones fall on slippery surfaces. Broken hips are an all too frequent outcome, leading to long hospital stays, wrecked confidence, and terrible physical pain. Many never really get over it. Add to the list of campaigns I want to start, one to get microspikes and similar things given to all pensioners as a matter of course. They’d pay for themselves in a single winter, not just in unoccupied hospital beds, but also in the well being, happiness and self esteem of the people affected.

If you’ve got a person with confidence or mobility issues who is likely to suffer in the ice and snow, consider making the investment and getting a set. Being kept in for long periods by bad weather is so isolating and demoralising, and the freedom this little bit of inspired invention gives a person, is incredible. They aren’t totally fall proof, but I’ve walked over steep and ice coated hills in them and never so much as lost my footing.

Creativity and Human Nature

One of the biggest and most dangerous mistakes we make is to assume that humans are not natural, that we are capable of acting in ways that are unnatural, and that we are somehow separate from nature. The belief in our separateness impairs our ability to have good relationship with the rest of the planet, and contributes to the harm we still seem to think we are entitled to cause. We may be natural, but we are going to turn ourselves into an endangered species if we do not preserve our own environment. Air, water and soil are not infinite resources, no matter how much we may want to pretend otherwise. Neither is oil, gas, or coal, on which our cultures currently depend.


All the wrongs in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the planet stem from that which we have made. Our industrialisation, our sciences, our meddling with nature, is all a direct consequence of our own, inherently creative nature. Our cleverness invents ever more ways to kill, damage, pollute and degrade.


At the same time, if anything is going to save us as a species, it will be that same capacity for innovation. We might yet invent our way out of the problem of fossil fuel dependence. We might yet create more sustainable ways of living. We might invent more social justice, and discover better ways to act as caretakers for the rest of the planet.


Anyone looking to ‘nature’ as a big, vague amorphous thing that isn’t us, might note that nothing else out there seems to be using its innate abilities to try and take care of other creatures, so why should we? It’s natural to predate, and seek the best for ourselves. It’s natural not to want to share, and not to care too much about the weaker things we squash. It’s natural to compete and to destroy competitors. It is natural to put our own comfort first, to think in the short term and pay no regard to the challenges future generations may face. Does the locust swarm worry about the farmer, or what tomorrow’s locusts will be eating? Of course not.


Nature is vast and diverse. It’s very easy to pick the ‘lessons from nature’ that you want to learn. As with yesterday’s post – nature taken as a whole thing can indeed be shown to offer nothing by way of inherent justice. But how about individual communities? Behaviour that harms the herd, or the pack, doesn’t tend to be tolerated by communal creatures. When we talk about ‘nature’ it’s like talking about the Bible – you can always find an example that will support your point of view.


As humans, it is in our nature to create. That’s not limited to the bardic arts, or even to science and technology. Our languages, social structures, laws, beliefs – these too have been created. We are capable of incredible ingenuity and innovation. There may be no justice in nature, but it is in our own natures to imagine its existence and strive towards it. There may be no fairness inherent in the world, yet still we can envisage fairness and make it part of our dealings with each other. It may be natural to let the weak and injured die, but we can choose to care for them. It would be arrogant to assume we are the only creatures capable of imagining in this way. Everything that has spirit may well be capable of imaginatively engaging with the whole, and creating anew. Trees are forever hybridising, inventing new forms of self. Nature gets into every niche. Urban foxes most certainly know how to innovate!


If we can imagine it, then it can exist. If we can imagine it, it is not unnatural, because we are part of nature. I doubt there were a bunch of mammals thinking ‘no, we’d better not get back in the sea, it’s not what’s natural for mammals’ at the time the first whales and dolphins were evolving. We cannot do other than what it is in our natures to do, but the potential within our nature is vast, perhaps infinite. Just because we can imagine a thing doesn’t make it a good idea, or clever. We are all capable of imagining things it would be better not to do, and as a species we don’t seem too great at enlightened self interest. But apparently that’s natural as well. For the purposes of long term survival, it’s going to require a bit of a rethink though.