Beyond Business: Creating “grounded” solutions that close the last mile to individuals
How do you take product/solution ideas to the next level? By leap-frogging your customers and engaging your locale as much as possible. In this video (transcribed below), I lay out my evaluation approach and share some real-world issues I’d like to help solve.
I’m using this presentation to talk about ideas that seem to be increasing in frequency throughout many online communities — namely, finding alternatives to the status quo.
Software product development has been all about creating new solutions to solve problems.
But there is still an idea that I call “the last mile to individuals” that needs addressing.
The idea of having a “grounded” idea means impacting real people in the real world.
Solutions, be they software or not, make the best impact on lives when they meet a particular set of criteria and improve the lives of individuals.
I’ll share a few ways to evaluate project ideas; this will help you frame your proposals to other communities that have the same need and desire to solve for it.
We all want to be useful and create useful products, solutions, and relationships. Even the most greedy person is intent on being helpful to its constituents to keep the money flowing. Either way, focusing on the needs of others is one way to make sure you are always in demand.
The best solutions that help solve local problems tend also to be sustainable because the needs are pervasive and likely unending.
Finding ways to make a business providing these services is another matter. For this presentation, we are focused on finding the right projects. We will cover the financial side at another time if there is interest.
Businesses Serve Customers
I recently wrote a technology blog post talking about the challenges of creating software products that are “customer-obsessed.” Corporate marketing aims at satisfying the customers, clients, and end-users of their solution or product.
This graphic shows the flow from a developer with an idea (or customer need) all the way through to the end-user or customer that needed the solution.
Each component here is presented in the context of a business — developers within the business, servicing needs of customers of the business, through platforms the business offers. This is common but I want to take the discussion a little higher.
But Wait, There’s More!
Some businesses do a really good job giving back to their communities, enabling employees to spend time volunteering or donating gifts to keep nonprofits afloat.
What I’d like to discuss the idea of bringing more individuals into the conversation and connecting them and their talents to projects the impact a larger solution.
The two inner rings of this orbital diagram are what we covered earlier, the platforms solve a problem, which in turn helps a specific set of customers.
But there is more beyond that — first the local community where employees and individuals help apply a platform to a broader set of users than, say, a customer really could.
Think about the products you are developing — are they making an impact beyond just the paying customers you work for? Personally, I couldn’t even describe my work to others outside of my customer-base!
I worked for years in the exclusive domain of geospatial technology, in particular, a branch of geographic information systems (GIS) which no one had ever heard of outside of geography or forestry degrees!
I worked on very geeky projects that impacted my customers, but it was always a real challenge to explain what I do to my friends and family. If the outputs of my work helped them or their friends in their day to day lives, it would have been much easier to show the impact.
We desperately need that kind of connection between our personal projects and their local application. It is too easy, especially this year, to work away in isolation focused on “normal” projects that benefit some faceless person far off.
When we turn our eyes toward the local community we can prove the benefit, on a local scale, of new technology, approaches, ideas, etc. This should mean helping real people with your scales and tools.
Then, ideally, others in similar situations around the world can look at these solutions and grow their own version in their locale.
It is important for me to call out that the “think globally, act locally” idea makes some sense, but I would like to transcend that by encouraging us to “build locally and enable globally” through sharing and collaborating. Disconnecting projects from local needs and benefits should be avoided. Naturally, hurting local economies to help global ones are not wise either.
Can you imagine a time before there were “citizen journalists”? Internet technology has enabled new sets of information and data sources to pop up out of nowhere because individuals saw an opportunity and a need.
Likewise, the “buy local” movement identified the need to appeal to locals who want to help support their neighbor’s business but may not even know it existed.
The customer still has the same needs but are finding the solution in a different way. Now more than ever, people want to support local businesses as a result of this movement.
So, how do you evaluate whether or not a project opportunity is going to be a winner in this new paradigm? Here is my set of top 5 considerations:
- Does the project solve for a real local/community need? Will it have a real impact on the lives of those around you? If you are not sure then do more research and connect with locals who may have been working in this space long before you.
The benefits of a certain solution will vary greatly depending on location, timing, economics, etc. For example, a project to build schools will be more needed in less developed nations and perhaps a waste of time in others.
- Can the project be delivered by locals or does it build a dependency on someone outside of the community? Likewise, can all materials, tooling, etc. be sourced locally or does it depend on a complex supply chain that may be fragile?
For example, a power station that requires nuclear fuel would require massive new supply chains whereas a locally derived fuel source would be easier to maintain.
- Does the project help people, businesses, and communities to grow in strength? Are they made more or less dependent? Individuals should be able to manage the project without needing a large bureaucracy to keep it running.
If the beneficiaries of such a solution need to give up their own independence, it is a huge red flag.
- Can the project serve as a blueprint for others in other communities or even worldwide? Obviously, this will vary greatly, but the best projects are built from components that can be swapped out or modified to suit surroundings.
For example, a food production facility may use grow lights in northern climates but need adjustment to work in remote areas without power.
- Is it a sustainable solution? Don’t read too deeply into this, as the term “sustainability” has been muddied quite a bit. I mean, can it keep running with minimal external inputs?
Or does adopting the solution mean committing to some person, business, government agency, or funding source that won’t be affected if the solution fails?
Beware the experts who leave after the project is over!
Sample Impact Areas
To help bring home these concepts, I’ll introduce three pet project areas that I am currently researching and discussing with others.
Please get in touch with me if you have ideas or solutions in these areas so we can collaborate!
The first is focused on ideas that help derive fuel and energy from new sources. In particular, there are amazing things going on with creating biofuel from plastics — using equipment that applies high-temperature water and pressures.
This is a win if it can be sized to match small community needs. I’m not sure that’s possible yet.
If it’s coupled with a landfill that has lots of end-of-life plastics to clean up, then it would serve many purposes.
The outputs could help keep the lights on or heat on in a remote community, or simply supplement the cost of other energy sources.
If a modular plant could be designed and exported elsewhere, it would be a powerful way to clean up the environment, reuse uncompostable materials, have a financial incentive to the producer, extend the lifespan of a landfill, power local manufacturing, and more.
Every country has issues with clean drinking water in some jurisdiction or another. We could say this is essentially a global problem so any progress on it should be helpful to a local community. There are a variety of water purification processes at varying scales.
The grand scale of a municipal water system may actually be too large for some communities to really keep a handle on. In some regions there are simpler not the resources available, so how do still get water, purify it as needed, and deliver it effectively?
I don’t have any amazing project ideas on this, but in some situations, I’ve seen communities wait for decades without the government helping them solve the issue. I see that as an opportunity — how can nearby communities work together to help leverage innovation, funding, and build local capacity?
Can we build water wells faster and cheaper with a new approach? Can each home extract water from the air to serve their daily needs? I don’t know, but I want to learn (and I wouldn’t want to depend on a bureaucracy to figure it out).
From another angle, we know how to rehabilitate ecoystems which will ultimately improve local water supplies — practice permaculture, build soil, conserve wetlands, remove pollution, etc. How can communities take that knowledge and make the world better? Let’s figure it out.
If you’re like me, you’ve already seen the numerous videos showing the promise of indoor vertical food growth systems, or robotic systems operating in shipping-style containers, etc.
The promise of “next-gen” agriculture is always a year or two away. Will this year finally push us to develop local solutions? It can feel like waiting for a miracle to prove that these systems can be affordable and sustainable.
Either way, we know how to grow food without needing AI or new technology to do it. Fragile supply chains have exposed the need to source more locally. What could this look like?
I use the term “micro agriculture” to address the needs of one or two families being met by a local solution that they have some control over. It could be a personal greenhouse or sharing in part of community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiative servicing multiple families from a larger acreage.
A well-designed system such as earth-bank greenhouses with geothermal heating and cooling could be made modular and replicated in many locales. Volume discounts could really kick in and help build new local economies to help design, build, deliver, and maintain these.
Urban-focused solutions would be another issue altogether, with its own size and space constraints. And even large acreages of higher volume traditional agriculture could benefit from some new ideas, including the use of incentives to encourage more local food production or granting land to build local food security.
The sustainability challenge is clear here — if there is over-reliance on new technology, then there are vulnerabilities and dependencies that may fail. Likewise, we may be limited in what we can if we don’t solve for things like weather, water access, and soil quality.
7.8B Helpers Waiting
So those are just a few of the ideas that I hope to see develop over the next few months and years.
I share them for a couple of reasons — to get your head into the “anything is possible” space, and to also invite you to reach out to me and start collaborating where we can.
The world has a lot of people who need solutions for all of these ideas — they are waiting for you to step up and share your genius with them.
If you start by talking to your neighbor, I’m sure you’ll find they too have great ideas for how to help with these problems and many more.
Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s talk about your ideas!