I’ve just seen a great TED talk by Steven Johnson.

In it he makes the point that ideas usually aren’t ‘Eureka’ moments.

Someone very rarely goes off alone and has a sudden flash of insight.

More usually it’s a team game.

It happens in a more crowded environment.

With people talking and swapping ideas.

Someone raises a problem.

Someone suggests a solution.

Someone shoots it down.

Someone finds a way round the objection.

Someone refines the idea.

Everyone thinks about that.

Eventually everyone agrees it’s a good idea.

And off you go.

Great ideas don’t come out of limbo.

They come as solutions to problems.

He gives a great example.

Timothy Prestero runs a company called ‘Design That Matters’.

This is a company staffed entirely by volunteers.

Its mission is to use design to help create a better life for people in the third world.

One of the main problems is infant mortality.

A million premature babies die each year because they don’t have incubators.

A neo-natal incubator is a sophisticated piece of technology costing around $40K each.

The main problem is what happens when it goes wrong?

No one knows how to fix it.

Figures show that 98% of the incubators that break down never get repaired.

So that defined the problem.

How to build an incubator that people in the third world could repair.

As always, the start point is to investigate the brief.

So they went to rural communities to see what skills were available.

Obviously there was little or no technology.

No microwave ovens, no DVD players, no computers, no dishwashers, no washing machines, no fridges.

But there was one thing that every community seemed to have.

Pickup trucks.

Four wheel drives.


They all seemed to have vehicles of some sort.

And because these vehicles were precious, they looked after them.

They knew how to keep them going.

Every local community knew how to repair cars and trucks.

So the answer was obvious.

Not easy, but obvious.

Design an incubator that’s made from car parts.

That way, when it breaks down, the local mechanic can fix it.

And that’s what Timothy Prestero’s team did.

The incubator they designed looks exactly like the neo-natal incubator you see in our hospitals.

But under the mattress it has two sealed-beam headlamps.

These provide heat by warming the baby’s mattress, and by warming the air around the baby.

The incubator has an automobile air-filtration system to clean the baby’s air.

It has a ventilation-fan to circulate the clean air around the baby.

It has a car reversing-alarm and indicator lights for warning signals, in case anything goes wrong.

It runs of its own 12-volt car battery.

It also has a car recharger in the base.

And it has small, inflatable wheels that can be mended at any cycle repair shop.

So any rural mechanic can fix this incubator if it breaks down.

For me that’s how you analyse a problem.

That’s how you define the brief.

Gathering information.

Working together.

Opening things out, not closing things down.

That’s how it should be.

That’s form following function.


And right now that car-parts incubator is saving little babies’ lives.