Bamboo for Who?



May 15, 2006

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Once again the question: who would bother to develop a technology for which they didn’t hold a patent monopoly? And once again the answer: lots of people. Today’s case in point is bamboo scaffolds.

Bamboo is a wonderful material. It is a form of grass; so that when cut, it grows back again – and fast, in a matter of months where a tree takes many years. The wood is light, strong, and flexible. It has a multitude of uses, from houses and furniture to carabao (water buffalo) sleds and even bicycle frames. A bamboo house breathes; the slats feel cool under bare feet. And then there are scaffolds.

It seems incongruous. Hong Kong is one of the most modern, hyper-commercial cities on earth. Yet if you stroll downtown you will see, at skyscraper construction sites, bamboo scaffolds that climb sixty and even eighty stories, a little like giant tinker toys. These are not the result of construction executives with quaint antiquarian tastes; nor of construction unions that have kept things stuck in a labor-intensive past.

Bamboo scaffolds actually are better than their metal counterparts. The poles are easier to handle and go up more quickly. Bamboo adapts more readily to odd-shaped buildings; and has more resilience in high winds. Erecting bamboo scaffolds involves no heavy equipment, since they consist mainly of logs lashed together with straps.

The techniques of construction go back about 2,000 years. Nobody owns them – neither the bamboo, nor the designs, nor the construction craft. These do not reside in file drawers of corporate lawyers, but rather in the minds and hands of master craftsmen called sifu who have learned the trade from other masters and from long experience. It is an ownership of skill and merit, rather than of monopoly and law.

This did not stop the craft from developing to a point of utter utility. Nor has it stopped innovation, The traditional techniques had to be adapted to skyscrapers, for example. Plastic strapping replaced bamboo ties, for speed and strength. Such changes served the task at hand, rather than just the pecuniary interest of an owner. That is the nature of a traditional craft: it evolves according to need and use, not according to an external agenda of monetary gain.

Contrast that to much patent-driven innovation — inkjet printers, for example. Here the aim is to make the product better not from the standpoint of the user but rather that of the producer. The producer locks the user into a stream of replacement cartridges that are outrageously expensive. (At least one printer manufacturer has pressed the claim that refilling cartridges violates its property rights under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal to override electronic means of copyright protection.)

But alas, even open source crafts are not immune to the bottom line. In recent years, construction managers have been dividing the labor of scaffold construction. Workers used to be involved in the whole job, and thereby learned the whole job. Now there’s a push towards an assembly line approach. “[Less experienced] workers put the poles into place and all the sifu does is tie knots,” one sifu explained to the South China Post, (on which much of this item is based.) Sifu used to haul poles to the upper floors, which gave them a feel for the whole structure. Now cranes are doing the job instead.

Younger scaffolders no longer get a broad range of tasks, which means they aren’t learning how to create more complex structures. “Bamboo scaffolding isn’t just a construction tool,” the sifu said. “It’s a traditional Chinese art form as well.” Art resides in the artist, which is something the corporate market cannot abide.

This goes ultimately to the nature of innovation – what it is, whom it serves. Twenty years ago, a history professor at M.I.T. by the name of David Noble, addressed that question in a book called The Forces of Production. Noble asked the basic questions, “How does the technology of production evolve? Whose problem does it really answer?” The prevailing belief is that technology follows an inevitable trajectory called “progress,” and that the technology that exists at any particular time has prevailed simply because it is the best.

Noble shows that “best” is a loaded term; it all depends upon best for whom. He looks in particular at the machine tool industry. At a crucial juncture, the production process in that industry could have followed either of two paths. One would have meant more autonomy for individual production workers. The other was more conducive to centralized management control. There were arguments for the former path based on quality, morale, and the like. Yet the industry chose the latter. Can you guess why?

It is the same reason, more or less, that inkjet printer cartridges are proprietary and cost a fortune, unlike say flashlight batteries and light bulbs which are standardized and therefore less expensive. Intellectual property claims are one tool in a larger arsenal. Sometimes they represent a reward for genuine innovation. Too often they are simply a way for a corporation to grab more for itself.

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