Chindogu: when useless is useful


Chindôgu – the Japanese art of the unusual – describes inventions that solve a problem but cause so many new problems (or embarrassment) that for most people, they are effectively useless.

Things like a combined duster and cocktail-shaker to reward yourself while cleaning, a toilet roll fixed to a hat for hay fever sufferers with continually running noses, plastic cover-all bathing suits for aquaphobics who still fancy a swim, duster slippers for cats so they can help out with the housework, not to mention all products by Amstrad and Iraqi democracy.

To underline its characteristics, there are ten key design principles of Chindôgu, among which (a) it has to be possible to make, in spite of its absurdity; (b) it has to remain in the public domain, it cannot be given a patent; and (c) it must not be exclusively a vehicle for humour.

There are now Chindôgu clubs, awards, best-selling Chindôgu books (One of them, 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions, sold 250,000 copies in Japan alone) and even a founding evangelist, Kenji Kawakami, who thought up the whole idea as a joke for a magazine article.

you may have seen him on the BBC show "It'll Never Work" along with Kevin Warwick – the professor who is trying to turn himself into a Cyborg.

It all reminds me of Continuous Improvement, with its catching Japanese term –Kaizen- with its clubs, awards, books, and founding evangelist – Edward Deming – but without the jokes.

The difference is, of course, that Kaizen seeks to improve stuff we buy while Chindôgu seeks to improve stuff we think. Kawakami feels that the movement provide a counterpoint to consumerism – an outlet for creativity without the suffocating demands of utility or profit.

And yet despite Kawakami wanting to keep the idea pure, it seems there is a connection between Chindôgu and Kaizen. The original kanji characters for Kaizen are KAI meaning 'change' and ZEN means 'good', while the kanji for Chindôgu are CHIN meaning 'good' and DOGU meaning 'tool'.

Doesn't 'good change' require 'unusual tools'? Is there some mechanism whereby continuous streams of (micro and macro) improvements to solve a particular problem need to start out, more or less, with an open, non-suffocating solution generating stream of creativity?

Even Kawakami appears to struggle to distinguish between the results of intentional and emergent Chindôgu – some stuff is designed to have fatal flaws, while other stuff ends up with one despite the best efforts of its designers.

The dotcom boom saw tends of thousands of websites launched that met most of the Chindôgu ideals, just as the Industrial Revolution and every revolution before it spawned a goodly number of crackpots and harebrained, Heath Robinson-style attempts at improvement.

And we still have thousands of them, beavering away at their schemes in sheds, workshops, offices, ghettos, suburbs and prestigious research establishments. People who just want to create? Yes. But also people who want to solve problems. If not they would be artists.

We would all benefit if the Chindôgu / Kaizen connection were better understood and more often practised. Breakthrough innovation that we depend on to solve our most pressing problems (poverty, people trafficking, disease, war, and climate change being my personal top five) comes from mass experimentation, trying over and over again to solve stuff from different angles and then rearranging them until something improves. And the same is just as true for more trivial problems.

Most of the time, these attempts at innovation seem to fail. Or do they? As Thomas Edison put it, "I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work."

One example of this is the history of organ transplants. They started with crude animal / human transplants in the 19th century and continued with bloody "failures". By the 1960s, only identical twins had benefited from successful kidney transplants, everyone else died.

And yet Thomas Starzl, along came a newly-qualified surgeon in Pittsburgh, took it upon himself to try and solve the transplant problem, starting with the liver and with ludicrous, wasteful surgery experimenting on dogs (of course I'm against vivisection - and yet...) before managing to perform the first human liver transplant in 1963.

At this point, his attempts - termed cannibalisation by his critics - were still, essentially Chindôgu. The patients bled to death. The first on the operating table. The second 22 days later.

Transplants were his attempt to solve problems by causing yet greater problems. But relentless he continued carving out livers to the extent that at one point, he was writing an academic paper ever 7.3 days (one every failure-filled week), resulting in more than 2130 articles.

But just four years later, he performed the first successful human liver transplant. Along the way (and since), he has revolutionised the science surrounding organ preservation, procurement and immunosuppressants.

Such has been the success of what he achieved that today, demand exceeds supply. In the USA during 2006, 28,000 transplants were carried out. Yet the waiting list comprised 95,0000 souls, 4,000 of whom will die each year as fewer than 2,000 new donors (and this figure is declining) are added to the list.

All of which leaves new problems. How to encourage people to be donors? How to manufacture organs? How to repair organs via gene therapy?

So every solution has a cost (or a problem) – and every new solution requires both Kaizen and Chindôgu.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.