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Fitting a Square Peg into a Round Hole

by Deborah Frieze on September 1, 2011

Recently, my friend Manish Jain asked me to write some reflections about the relationship between resilience and jugaad, a Hindi term for ingenuity, an invitation to the imagination to play and invent new solutions using whatever is right in front of you.

It brought to mind for me a scene in the movie Apollo 13, when the NASA engineers realize that they have to construct a carbon dioxide filter using only materials available on the spacecraft—and that they’ve got a mismatch between, literally, a square peg and a round hole. They dump a mass of random material on the table, and the lead engineer says, “The people upstairs handed us this one and we gotta come through. We gotta find a way to make this [square cartridge] fit into the hole for this [round cartridge] using nothing but that [materials on the table].”

There is perhaps no better expression of jugaad in popular Western culture than this dramatic moment, seared into the memory of generations fascinated by the triumphant unpredictability of space travel. It is a moment rooted in the spirit of bricolage—a do-it-yourself process of improvisational problem-solving that responds to changing circumstances, that adapts to life’s inevitable disruptions.

This is the essence of resilience, our capacity to rebound from disturbance and continue to function effectively. No matter how well we plan—and NASA certainly plans—life throws us disruptions we never could have imagined. One of the greatest skills we can cultivate today, in this time of great complexity and rapid change, is the capacity to invent solutions to emerging needs by working with the materials we already have at hand.

When I was visiting friends in Oaxaca, Mexico, I was invited to pedal a bici-bomba, an irrigation pump that put a salvaged bicycle to use watering a garden. In Soweto, South Africa, we collected plastic bags that could be twisted and woven into shoes. In Udaipur, India, I ate meals that had been cooked in a solar over constructed out of an old suitcase, car windshield and rubber tires.

All around the world, people are practicing jugaad because—as on Apollo 13—they have to. They do not have access to the resources that many of us in the West so carelessly toss into our garbage bins. Instead, they convert abandoned shipping containers into housing, plastic bottles into compost toilets and newspaper into window blinds.

We all know there will come a time when the cost of creating waste will be too high to bear. For some of us, that time is already here, and it is far wiser to claim waste as an asset than it is to toss it out the door. For most of us, however, that time seems far off in the future, inevitably unfolding in someone else’s lifetime.

I feel confronted by this. It is so much easier to participate in the current system—to throw my recyclables into the bin and have them hauled off by the Boston Waste Reduction Division. This week, I threw in two wine bottles, a plastic cup with straw from a bubble tea I picked up in Chinatown, a copy of Harper’s Magazine, a small pile of junk mail and a toilet paper roll. I don’t know what it costs to put all this material back to work. But I do know that it involves collecting, cleaning, sorting, breaking down, remanufacturing and redistributing.

Alternatively, I could have converted my waste into drinking glasses, a bowl, a few necklaces and, if I got really creative, perhaps even some lingerie. (Visit The Berkana Institute’s Upcycling Portal to view examples.)

I haven’t done that yet. The truth is it’s simply far easier to participate in the cycle of consumption and disposal than it is to embrace zero-waste living. Unfortunately, the system that I’m supporting is built on cheap oil, which contributes to the illusion that the cost of depleting the planet’s resources is less than the cost of my personal inconvenience.

A resilient system is one that forgoes convenience, speed and growth in favor of sustainability. This is why the rapid spreading of jugaad is so essential today. Those who practice jugaad are preparing the ground for a world in which we can no longer afford to throw away usable resources, and waste becomes one of our most valuable assets. As they connect to one another and exchange ideas, new solutions become possible, square pegs can be made to fit round holes. And from this ingenuity, a way forward emerges that allows us to adapt to a changing world.