When Planting a Garden is a Radical Innovation

Nothing could be less innovative than planting a garden at your house, right? Maybe – but maybe not. Take a look at this:

It’s a Green Roof that’s been planted as part of an initiative put together by Sustainable South Bronx. This is initiative started by Majora Carter. The gardens do three main things. They provide food for residents, with a surplus that can be sold to stores and restaurants. The insulate the roofs of the building, which reduces temperatures in the summer and increases them in the winter, saving on climate control expenses. And the extra plants scrub toxins from the air, creating a healthier environment.

Here is how Douglas Rushkoff describes the work of SSBs in his book Life, Inc.:

Through her group, Sustainable South Bronx, she created opportunities for people to grow vegetables at home, to get paid to do environmental cleanup, and to work through local government to stop New York from using the neighborhood as a dumping site for 25% of the city’s waste. Her main innovation was to develop a new method of rooftop gardening that provides high yields of organic vegetables for urban dwellers and local restaurants.

Efforts like this scale up in two ways. First, they are shared with or copied by other groups in other communities around the world. Rooftop gardens can work in any city to lower energy bills and clean the air while providing food and jobs. Sharing the wealth is not a matter of Sustainable South Bronx franchising patented techniques to other cities – there’s enough work for them to do in the South Bronx, and they don’t need to extract value from other cities in order to achieve sustainability for themselves. By modeling what they do for others, they develop a network through which they too can learn new techniques.

More significantly, the impacts of their highly local efforts trickle up in profound ways. Less pollution means fewer children with asthma, lower medical and insurance costs, and more time in school.

That’s a lot of good outcomes just from planting gardens. Here are some of the key ideas that are illustrated by the Green Roof program:

  1. If you can innovate gardening, you can innovate anything. This is another example of major business model innovation. The initiatives that SSBx undertakes, and the work that they train people to do is nothing new. The new part is the infrastructure that they have built around these basic activities. In doing so, they are creating genuine value.
  2. This is a great example of what Umair Haque referred to last week as a ‘betterness model’. After describing some major problems with IKEA that he encountered, Haque said:

    IKEA’s problem is that it has a business model — but no betterness model. By that I mean, not a model to merely make, market, and sell more meaningless, mass-produced junk, but a model for creating authentic economic value that accrues meaningfully to society.

    Sustainable South Bronx is certainly doing this. Their initiatives create significant local value, making the neighborhood a stronger community, and a better, healthier place to live. That’s quite an accomplishment – and one worth aiming for.

  3. SSBx is creating value by connecting. They connect ideas to create new business models and new ways of doing things. Then they connect these ideas to people when they train them – the ideas get transferred as skills. And by creating a network of similar organisations in other cities, they create value for themselves and others through sharing ideas. This is an example of building a network by connecting others, rather than trying to create scarcity by occupying the most valuable network position themselves. Innovation creates value through creating connections.

Innovation isn’t simply coming up with shiny new things. Developing new ways of doing things is a powerful form of innovation. In doing this, we need to consider the broader implications of our business model, which is what makes Haque’s Betterness Model so compelling to me. When you start thinking this way, you can figure out how to innovate something as simple as a garden.

If you’re interested in learning more, here are two interesting talks. The first is Majora Carter’s TED talk, where she discusses her background, and how she came to be involved in sustainable development:

The second is Douglas Rushkoff’s talk at SxSW this year, where he summarises some of the key themes from his book:

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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