Sunday, 21 March 2010

Creative Innovative money making ideas can often be disarmingly low tech, study finds

WHY IS it that clever ideas also seem to be simple ideas and that being innovative doesn’t necessarily equate to high tech? Innovative, money-making ideas can often be disarmingly low tech and yet enjoy substantial financial returns.

I ask this in light of the launch last month by President Mary McAleese of the “Your Country Your Call” competition. Major money is on offer, two prizes of €100,000 and a combined €1 million worth of business development support and all you have to do is be innovative, come up with a way to create prosperity and jobs.

You could do worse while in pursuit of that money than take a leaf out of Walter Frederick Morrison’s book. He came up with an amazing yet simple idea that has delivered millions of euros in sales – the frisbee. This simple plastic “flying saucer” has sold an estimated 200 million units around the world, an achievement that if duplicated here would deliver all the prosperity and jobs required to win the Your Country Your Call prize.

Morrison died last month, in the process sparking a flurry of news stories and features that lamented his passing while celebrating his simple achievement. Yet the man was no overnight success. His flying disc needed an amount of work to make it happen even though it seems so ridiculously simple.

There are several web versions of his history, one claiming he developed his idea while throwing about an old tin lid with his future father-in-law in 1937, the other that it arose in 1948 after the war while tossing an inverted pie tin. The later story also suggests how the product, originally the Flyin-Saucer and then the Pluto Platter, was named. It was a trademark-dodging version of the pie tin’s owner, the Frisbie Pie Co.

Morrison modified his platter a number of times before being bought out by a company that is a by-word for innovation, Wham-O. The company made iconic products that every American kid would have known from the 1960s through today, like the SuperBall and the Slip’n Slide or that international favourite, the HulaHoop. Simple bits of plastic that sold millions. If only I had thought of it first.

Not one of them has a microchip or a battery or needs to be charged before use. They are just good ideas that somebody had the vision to support. Similar uncluttered thinking allowed the Victorians, wealthy ones anyway, to grow and enjoy their own fresh oranges in Orangeries. Large, elegant lean-to glass houses were built onto the south facing side of some grand homes, including plenty in Ireland, in order to provide a supply of oranges.

The clouds were a bother, but cheap heating was no problem. One heating system featured piping running along the base of a long trough. The trough would be filled to the brim with fresh manure and allowed to rot, in the process giving off significant heat that was carried away in the pipework as warm water. The water kept the glass house warm and the manure when rotted could be tossed out into the flower beds. Win, win.

And what about a remarkable central air conditioning system I once spotted on a former mansion outside Philadelphia. A metal frame had been bolted onto the back of the four-storey house and onto this was mounted a thin metal mesh like a screen. Pipes fed water onto the screen at the top of the building and this trickled down the mesh to run into a tank at the bottom.

A hot summer’s day in Philly would see the water evaporate rapidly, chilling it due to evaporative cooling. This cool water in turn could be piped into the house to bring down the temperature inside. Simple. No moving parts but for a small pump. How innovative can you get.

We have a tendency these days to go with a heavy technological fix when presented with problems, but none of these innovations relied on complex technology. They are just good ideas that had a chance to flourish.

Let’s hope that Your Country Your Call can turn up a few more, ideas that will help create jobs and maybe make someone wealthy. We could all do with a bit of cheering up given the state of things. It isn’t exactly the knowledge economy as espoused by the Government but it is certainly the smart economy.

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