A Return To Simplicity

I recently watched the entire 6 episode run of A Chef’s Table (IMDB) on Netflix and I was struck by how much each chef’s passion and drive was for purity, the directness of farm-to-table and a focus on clean and perfect ingredients. Although there is still a place for innovation in high tech, complex and abstract creations in the food world (Achatz, Dufresne, Cantu and of course Adria) where the lines between art, experience, memories, emotion and food blend together in beautiful ways, there are many chefs that are pushing for perfection in going back to traditional methods and presenting the ingredients in the cleanest and purest way.

In short: A return to simplicity.

Dan Barber of Blue Hill is one of these chefs that is leading the innovation of presenting the absolute best ingredients and products with few frills and as direct as possible to the consumer. “You get to taste what a tomato REALLY tastes like,” he says “when the plant is grown in the best conditions and without a focus on how it looks.” His innovation in so many ways is that he is taking us back to a time before complex, mass-produced, bland foods. By keeping things simple, he in fact brings about a new way of looking at what we eat.

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Credit: High50.com

While watching the episode on Barber along with the ones on Magnus Nilsson of Faviken and Francis Mallman, I couldn’t help but think about the concept of Jugaad in the field of medical device innovation. A colloquial Hindi-Urdu word that can mean an innovative fix or a simple workaround (Wikipedia), it has been an idea that has stuck with me ever since I read an article where simple plastic cones had been easily reshaped to become water desalination containers. Such a simple and beautiful design could change the lives of thousands if not millions of people.

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An example of jugaad where the bicycle drives the sharpening stone. Credit: youtube.com

In so many ways, it is easy to make something more complicated and to keep adding features; building on what is already there. To look at a problem (be it mass-produced, mass-farmed foods or an unmet medical need) and think about how to address it in the most pared down and simple manner in many ways is more challenging. At the same time, it does also mean a greater potential for end user adoption, as the usage should be more intuitive and decreasing the slope of the learning curve.

Just this week, IDEO revealed their Antibotics campaign as a refined approach to getting children to take their antibiotic pills. Sticking with the definition of jugaad, this is an innovative solution to the ages-old issue of getting children to take their medicine (and swallowing pills whole no less!). Fundamentally, the medication is no different, but by simply crafting a storyline around the pill, you can increase compliance and medication adherence. This is absolutely elegant in its simplicity.

I will soon be running a clinical trial of an endoscopic device at my home institution that I developed using Teflon heat shrink tubing and ceramic balancing beads used in motorcycle wheels. The device is an endoscopic cap that allows the gastroenterologist/surgeon to now have circumferential directional guidance on the video monitor to increase procedural accuracy and to be precise in reviewing portions of the esophagus/intestine that they may have previously biopsied or want to keep an eye on. Total material cost for each cap? Less than $0.10 and biologically safe.

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When I was looking through the prior art when designing the device, I was struck by how much of the IP that existed to address this issue relied on high tech, complex solutions involving gyros, external hardware for positioning, magnets and other electrical systems. In an age where we are surrounded by technology and with new things coming out every day, it is easy to pile tech on tech. Taking a step back and thinking about a solution to a problem that does not necessarily rely on a complex approach can be refreshing.

Stanford Biodesign’s India branch has recently developed a way to confirm secure cardiac positioning and insertion of the electrical leads for pacemakers. Using some plastic, popsicle sticks and a spring, they prototyped out a functional system that can let the physician know if the leads were inserted securely into the cardiac muscles. A complex and potentially catastrophic problem was addressed with the most basic of materials.

Dan Barber says, “Without great ingredients, there are no good dishes.” Indeed as a creator, inventor, and/or designer, we need to have the right armamentarium, the right skills and the best environment and infrastructure to innovate. We create where we identify a need or see a problem in the world that needs a solution, and there will always be elegance in refining and paring a device down to exactly what is needed.

Forward Thinking With Historical Precedent

This past weekend I watched The Imitation Game and it got me thinking quite a lot, not only about the Ultra project/Bletchley Park, but also about the many parallels drawn between Alan Turing’s work and Google as well as Silicon Valley as a whole.

There is certainly no mistaking the revolutionary work that Turing did during WWII. Deciphering the Enigma through the creation of a machine that would use brute force analyses to churn through all the possibilities led to the advent of the modern day computer. In recognition and respect of his work, Google even sponsored the New York screening of the film and invited people to take part in a code breaking challenge.

In learning about this, along with Turing’s original method for recruiting people onto his team back in 1942 by placing a crossword puzzle in the Daily Telegraph (image credit to Charis Theobald), I couldn’t help but remember back when I first moved to Boston and a mysterious billboard showed up in Harvard Square:

google billboard

Turns out, this was posted by Google as a method of recruitment with the final page of the website inviting you to submit your resume. The parallels between this approach and Turing’s crossword puzzle are undeniable to me, and reflect not only a clever recruitment method to join a creative and innovative institution, but perhaps a homage to Turing himself.


In the film, Keira Knightley’s character Joan Clarke is portrayed as a lowly secretary that was able to complete the crossword puzzle (and subsequent testing) well under the time that Turing had set as the goal. In reality, Joan Clarke was well educated and was independently brought on board as part of the code breaking team. Even so, the movie portrayal of Clarke again echoed to me some of the more recent interviews with top Google[X] team members where they talk about shifting focus away from hiring a specialized individual for a specific position to hiring talented (and “T-Shaped”) individuals. The logic is that like the movie version of Joan Clarke, if you possess a certain level of ability, then you’ll be able to adapt and excel at the task at hand.

This is one of the most fascinating things to me about how many of these major institutions in the Bay Area function. To have a goal of bringing together multi-talented individuals that each have a breadth of experience and capability paired with deep understanding of one (or more) fields to solve a problem is quite unconventional in the rest of the nation and the world. We are more used to filling position Y with someone that went to school/has experience in/got a degree in Y, rather than filling the position with someone that has the capability and acumen based on their CV, experience and innate ability to fulfill the requirements of position Y.

Google is certainly not alone in this approach. IDEO, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft all recognize and identify T-Shaped individuals, and build teams, facilities and initiatives with such people.

The apparent innate ability of Keira Knightley’s (fictionalized) character in the movie also speaks to the individuals that were responsible for the genesis of what we know today as Silicon Valley. Wozniak, Jobs, Gates, and Allen among others (Zuckerberg for one) all dropped out of college to pursue their passions and ultimate success. There is constant discussion in the startup/innovation realm about how formal degrees do not necessarily equate ability. Although the subject is parodied in Mike Judge’s show Silicon Valley (clip here) and demonstrated by Knightley’s character, there is truth in this as well.

To me, the movie comes at a pivotal time in this age of innovation, startups and tech. Clearly, we have gained inspiration directly and indirectly from the concepts and work of Dr. Turing, while at the same time the fictionalized components of the movie reflect modern day ideas (and perhaps ideals) injected into the storyline.

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