Below is a memo I sent to my team today. They asked me to share it openly, so here it is.
Hi OpenLab team. I was reflecting on this over the weekend and thought that it’s quite relevant to the way we approach things at OpenLab.
Like millions around the world, I was glued to the internet, riveted by the drama that unfolded in the Thai cave where 12 boys and a football coach were trapped and then rescued. As the last of the children emerged from the cave that nearly took their lives and killed one of the divers, information began to emerge about the improvised contraption employed by the rescue team that ultimately led them to safety. While half way around the world, Elon Musk and his Californa team of professional innovators built a futuristic-looking miniature submarine that “broke the internet”, the local team quietly Macgyvered the makeshift solution from pretty ordinary parts. When the kid-sized submarine arrived in Thailand, the chief of the rescue mission thanked Musk, but told him that the device was “not practical” for the operation. Instead, they went with a plastic stretcher tethered to a system of ropes and pulleys. A boy, lying flat on the stretcher, would be fitted with an oxygen mask and sedated with medication so that he would remain calm through the perilous journey. It wasn’t rocket science, just good design — perfect for the need.
As I reflected on this, I was heartened to realize that the secrets to the rescue team’s success are things that we, at OpenLab, already know to be true but seldom discuss collectively. Here they are:
Good design needs local context. The images that emerged from Thailand in the aftermath of the rescue looked nothing like the prestine California swimming pool where Musk’s Space X team tested their mini-sub. To design something well, you need two types of knowledge: the need, and the know-how to create the solution. Team Musk is without a doubt experts in the latter, able to turn around a working device within 48 hours. But that wasn’t enough, for the need wasn’t for a submarine, but a lightweight device that could trek through water, isn’t a liability on land, could negotiate narrow passageways and be high-lined across rocky caverns. This is why ethonographic methods are so important to design. What the local rescue team had that Musk’s team didn’t was intimate knowledge of the local terrain.
Good design is iterative. The aha moment and the realized solution are rarely connected by a straight line. It’s often a tangled mess, full of deadends. That’s why we do prototyping, so that something can be gained from our failures. In the days before the final rescue mission, the local team was training the boys to dive, with the idea that they would be led out of the cave under their own power. But somewhere along the way, something happened that made them realize that this plan wasn’t going to work, and so they tried something else. And who knows, maybe there were many more something elses in between.
Good design is inter-disciplinary. This is particularly true when dealing with complex problems. In this case, an “engineering” solution alone wasn’t going to be enough (no disrespect to engineers). We can surmise from the sedated-boys-wearing-oxygen-masks-laying-on-stretchers solution that an inter-disciplinary team was involved that, at a minimum, consisted of doctors, divers, rock climbers and emergency response workers.
Good design doesn’t have to be shiny. Sure, the mini-submarine was futuristic and pretty badass looking, and videos of it got millions of views on social media. But what ultimately got the boys out safely was a cobbled-together contraption that simply did the job.
Good design doesn’t need hype. There was absolutely zero information about the Macgyvered contraption until after mission was accomplished, and even then, few details were released. But that’s okay. Technology is not the hero here.