Sunday, July 15, 2007

System Big Play: A History

In the fall of 2005, my son, Will, joined the LEGO Robotics Club at the Lab School for Creative Learning where he was in the second grade. At the age of seven, he was too young to be on the competition team. Instead, he was part of a second group of students who were introduced to the basic concepts of robotics and programming.

As a kid I was a LEGO fan. I had a large collection of LEGO System bricks when I was a kid and had since gifted them to my son. I had known that LEGO and robotics had been developing for some time and working with Will and the Robotics Club allowed me to appreciate how far the technology had developed.

Much of the time during the club meetings, I found myself puzzling out new concept with the robotics kits. You must understand that I am a Mechanical Engineer by training, a Software Engineer by career, and I am a pattern thinker. I excel in pattern games like the LEGO System. One day I was at the Robotics club and I was thinking, “I could make a such-and-such robot that could help around the house.” Then there was the simple problem that the LEGO parts were just too small and weak to really get the job done. That is when I thought, “What if the LEGO were made of aluminum and scaled up by a factor of two or four.” Thus was born an idea, that at the time I called “LEGO Big Play.”

That fall I was starting into the Coaches Training Institute Leadership program. A 10 month leadership program I affectionately call “Enlightenment Boot Camp.” Our first assignment: Due a presentation in front of an audience and see how you show up as a leader.

My first presentation idea was falling apart. It was a project to modernize the web technology at the Lab School. The school is run by a committee and it is very difficult to get a committee to act in any timely manor. The result was I thought, for my project, I would pitch the idea of scaling up LEGO to a group of my techno friends.

I started to put together the presentation and it mutated as I worked on it. What started off as a robot building system concept changed into a redefine the product lifecycle presentation.

At that point something strange happened. This is often the case in these situations. My wife Margaret asked me to make her web site more like that of Carol Ross’ web site. Carol Ross runs Ross and Associates an executive coaching group. My wife also a life coach had met Carol through one of the many coaching trainings or other activities she was involved in. As I was looking over the Ross and Associates web site, I discovered that one of the associates was Robert Rasmussen.

As I read Rasmussen’s bio I was fascinated. He was an executive coach and currently involved in a program called LEGO Serious Play where he used LEGO System blocks as the medium through which he coached executive teams through various exercises. Between 1998 and 2003 he led the LEGO Group team that developed the LEGO Mindstorm Robotic program.

I thought “I need to talk with this guy.” So I emailed him, using my tenuous connection to Carol Ross and explained that I was in a leadership program needed to do a presentation and would like his feedback on what he thought of it. He agreed and we set a time.

After the presentation, he was intrigued. I learned quite a bit about what LEGO had tried in its labs. I also learned that the LEGO Group was consolidating to focus on the toy market. They would not be likely to entertain such ideas. We left that meeting with the decision to stay in touch and talk again.

I made the presentation to my techno friends. They thought it was pretty cool, but what now?

In January of 2006, Robert Rasmussen and I talked again. I was still pitching the large vision. He requested more specific on how it be brought to market. We talked a great deal on what were the market barriers. The number one barrier seemed to be: You need a large enough mix of parts before the whole system becomes useful. He said come back when you have a workable plan.

I actually did come up with two workable plans. The first was to approach the Military (particularly DARPA) in an effort to sell them on the reusability. I even had written a proposal with very specific time line and R&D goals. I just could not pursue the plan though because it was not in alignment with my values.

The second workable plan I had was in the area of tile mosaics. The plan there was a web site that would allow people to upload images, specify the size of the tile area and have a LEGO like tile kit of their image sent to them. It would have backing boards and snap on tiles. Although I thought this would be workable, it was more of a “toy” like application rather than the hard core real world I wanted to bring the technology into.

Over the next 18 months, I was searching for ideas. It was easy to find ways to apply the technology once it existed. I could do calculations that showed that offsetting onsite labor in construction with automated manufacturing at a factory (embodied in higher cost construction material) could be profitable. Add additional cost savings of much lower construction waste and use of the system could be a great advantage to the construction industry.

I played with ideas like reusable electrical components and what that could mean for the development of custom consumer electronics. Imagine going to a website like Dell Computer and saying I would like a 1200 W microwave, with clock, a kitchen fan, convection system, female voice, and FM stereo radio.

The problem continued to be, how to cross the canyon. How to get from the point of having no parts in the System to having a system of generic reusable parts with enough parts to start making some of these business models works.

In the spring of 2007, I was having a conversation with my good friend Dan Bihn. I was complaining that I was stuck with this idea. I really believed it could be a reality, I just could not find a good business proposition to get it started. He said “Make it an open source project.” I was stunned. Give my idea away? I envisioned this technology playing itself out as the next HP with me as the CEO, and he had just asked me to kiss that dream goodbye. The more we talked about the concept the more it made sense. It still took me a while to re-adjust to this new approach.

Finally, I decided to move forward with the open source concept. I started researching the net. Were there similar projects? Were there open source hardware licenses out there? What I found was that the ham radio people had attempted to standardize an open source hardware license. Other than that there was very little in the way of open source hardware to be found and none of it outside of electronics. The term “hardware” on the internet is synonymous with computer electronics. When you dig into mechanical engineering there is not much to speak of on the internet. The closest project to speak of is the Society for Sustainable Mobility. This open source ground vehicle is remarkable in its pioneering use of the internet.

I further was inspired that I was on the right track when in the summer of 2007 I picked up a copy of Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. They gave me words to describe what I was trying to achieve. My plan at the time of this writing is to create a pre-competitive collaborative community for the development of a system of highly generic easy to assemble reusable parts.

I have changed the name to “System Big Play” because I realized that the system would not likely in the end look like the LEGO System and to move it away from the LEGO trademarked name. I kept the Big Play because I want people to be creative and imaginative with the System. I also think it is a big play into the existing paradigm by which we make our material world. It is a big play into the global economic system.

The rest of the history has yet to be written. These days I am evangelizing. I am also drawing together the people and infrastructure to support the community. When that is complete the focus will be on a marketing campaign.

If you want to be part of the action, please contact me directly at or call me at (970) 484-4577.

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