Fractals, Design Thinking and Grapevines

Some definitions:

  • #OverlapSF is a gathering of design-thinking individuals (mostly User or Interaction Experience Designers and Design Engineers) who live in the San Francisco area and get together every once in a while to ideate together.
  • Design Thinking is “the integration of signs, things, actions and environments that addresses the concrete needs and values of people in diverse circumstances” (Richard Buchanan)

For the past couple of years, I’ve been growing more interested in fractals with every opportunity to go deep into the well where imagination and ideas are born.  On Thursday night, I was in San Francisco for an #OverlapSF gathering at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).  The exhibit we went through together was How Wine Became Modern: Design + Wine 1976 to Now.

I admittedly know very little about wine, and as this was my first experience with the Overlap group, I let the environment and the social persuasion of conversation guide my experience.  I learned (from @fogfish) that there are five grades of soil. Grade 1 soil, for example, holds a lot of water and nutrients, is dark and moist — but not everything grows well in that soil.  Grapes, such as the grapes that are used to make wine, grow best in Grade 4 soil.  I assume this is soil that is dryer and allows the vine to soak up more of the water when it’s around, and in a locale like California, it’s more apt to rain than in other parts of the country that might have this same grade of soil.

Fibonacci Sequence of Oak
Fibonacci Sequence of Oak

I was drawn to the Fibonacci sequence of Oak on display to demonstrate the impact that oak barrels have on the wine itself. I didn’t notice the Fibonacci sequence myself — that was pointed out to me by @maddyiii.

As I moved on through the exhibit, there was a giant grapevine with roots exposed suspended by cables from the extremely tall gallery ceiling. It struck me as two sets of branching networks working in tandem with each other, but it wasn’t until we got to the Riedel glass collection — and specifically the carafes — that something sparked in my mind.

The Grapevine Carafe looks like a Fractal Pattern
The Grapevine Carafe looks like a Fractal Pattern

Each branch in this pattern produces two stems and if there was more glass, this pattern could just continue. It ocurred to me that it’s probably easy to get wine into such a carafe, but it’s got to be pretty difficult to get it out.

It struck me that fractals, in and of themselves, have a volume.  Does the space that fractals themselves take up hold some value that builds up over time? Does whatever is in a fractal pattern ever get tapped, and if so, how do the contents of the fractal (and the fractal itself) change by tapping it?

This got me thinking a bit more about that suspended grapevine with its roots exposed. With a grapevine, you basically have two fractal systems working together. The roots are one such system, and they collect all the resources necessary for the entire grapevine to serve its purpose.  The roots, for example, interact with resources that are outside of the fractal system (nutrients, water, earth minerals, acids, etc) below the earth, gathering them and moving them up and above the earth to another fractal system which ultimately, while gathering other resources (sunlight, oxygen), bears fruit (which is another resource for another system).

Put this grapevine in Grade 1 soil (very moist) and it will never produce great fruit no matter how much of the other elements outside of the system can affect it.

Put the system in a Grade 4 soil and you’re more likely to have wonderful grapes, which eventually make wonderful wines.

So let me ask you this, dear readers. What’s the soil like where you are? How acrid is it? What kind of sun and warmth and air are you and your system, organization, network getting?  Even if you’re able to bottle the (now I hope you’re getting the metaphor) wine, are there things that would make the wine better, improve the yield, if you were to change the environment, change the resources that feed it, or change the system entirely?

What do you want to plant? Where do you need to plant to make it?

PS: Thanks again to @jaycross for introducing me to @brynn and @dennisschleiche for introducing me to @chrismessina. Some of the most interesting learnings of my life have happened this year and it is in large part because of how extraordinary the people in my personal learning network (PLN) are. If you’re STILL wondering what social learning is, try letting your tribe — whomever they are — take you where you didn’t know you needed (or wanted) to go. Social Learning is more than the vicarious learning that happens through social exchange — it’s the journey that ultimately transforms you and helps you adapt to the “now” and prepare for the “next.”

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