Creativity and Scarcity

I've always appreciated and been drawn to people, companies and organizations that can succeed through creative use of minimal resources and aging or basic technology. Sure, it's fun to read about damn-the-torpedoes efforts that are awash in funding and laden with the latest technology - they are often impressive. But there's something special about the ingenuity that's required when you have none of that, and must achieve excellence with minimalist capabilities. Often you arrive at solutions that are more nimble, cheaper, greener.

When I was growing up, my favorite car maker wasn't Ferrari or Lamborghini, but Lotus, which got its start making bare bones race cars in the garages of Muswell Hill, in North London, where I lived (though I didn't become aware of this proximity until much later). The founder, Colin Chapman, was famous for his phrase:

"Simplify, then add lightness"

This is still a good rule to live by, in my book.

The English are often adept at doing well while making do. This was especially true during World War II and the post-war period. Consider the simple but crude bombsights, crafted from wood to help guide the dam buster bombers. Or the Lotus Elan. Or the Psion 3a PDA.

One normally thinks of Japanese companies as being at the opposite end of the technological spectrum. (Though as I've written before, Honda has its roots in a similarly scrappy mentality, also driven by resource scarcity in the post-war period. I'm currently reading the new book Driving Honda, and it expands on this theme.)

Nintendo, it seems, is cut from the same cloth as Colin Chapman. I recently learned of a terrific phrase coined by Gunpei Yokoi, a lead engineer and video game creater at Nintendo:

"Lateral thinking through withered technology."

Escapist describes this approach as:

Consumers, he believed, would prefer cheaper products with fun gameplay over the hottest, cutting-edge gadgets. This design philosophy, which Yokoi would later dub “Lateral Thinking of Withered Technology,” guided most of his inventions; to this day, Nintendo still gravitates toward well-understood technologies to design their novel, reinvented gameplay.

Lukas Mathis explains:

Whenever Nintendo produced videogame systems that used established technology in surprising ways, it did well. When it tried to compete on specs, it did poorly.
The Game Boy won against better-specced competitors, because it used cheaply available parts in an innovative package. The better-specced Game Gear and Atari Lynx could not compete. It’s even more plain with the Nintendo DS and the Wii. Both used cheaply available components (the low-end ARM chips in the DS, or the cheap accelerometers and infrared camera in the Wii Remote) in interesting new ways, and were able to outsell technologically superior competitors.