The Beauty of an Ugly Prototype

posted in: Learning | 5

At Island Vibes, I met Fred who had recently taken a permaculture design course at a newly developed piece of land. Fred spoke of a gasifier machine he learned about at the course which sounded remarkable. They launched a community project to build one – a wood stove that runs a generator, produces gasoline, runs a fridge and heats water at the same time. It smelled ripe, like the kind of opportunity a founding student of the Experience Institute might pursue.


I flew 2000km North towards the Great Barrier Reef into Cairns. Fred picked me up from the airport, we gathered supplies, met friends, packed up the land cruiser and were off into the deep Australian bush. We drove for five hours, past the northernmost town in Australia, a place where only 4WD vehicles dare go. We pulled up to the permaculture farm where this chapter began, pitched our tents and slept beneath the stars.

So, no one had actually built a gasifier per se. This weekend was about looking at some designs and methods that were already out there like Mr. Teslonian and taking a crack at building a portion of this seemingly magical machine.

We spent the first morning watching some videos and exploring how to make this technology a reality for the community.


After lunch we waded through heaps of scavenged materials (i.e. trash) looking for a starting point.


We found an old freezer, ripped it apart and got a sense of what we had to work with.


We talked through some rough steps and attempted to visualize how this could come together. After a few minutes, we just started building.


We filled up what was starting to resemble a gasifier stove with some wood, threw in a dash of fire and watched eagerly to see what our day of work had produced. It turned out to be a great success, the wood was gasifying, the structure held up and it looked like this trashed freezer was going to have a new life.


The next morning, Fred was on it. He made up a little paper model for what he had in his mind for the next phase. We went with it, refining the prototype.


The destination was unknown. We learned to work with what we had, as a team.

EDIPT at work

I feel blessed to be in a position to take advantage of such audacious and adventurous experiences. This funny thing has been happening where I put out intentions, put myself in situations for them to manifest, and then they magically become reality. I saw the steps of the human centered design process that we learned about in our first meetup of Experience Institute play out as we hacked together this phase of the gasifier machine. I hadn’t spoke to anyone about human centered design or EDIPT (Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) that weekend, it happened naturally. We turned trash into treasure. It makes me wonder if one of the reasons this process is so good at achieving results is because its innate, maybe it’s simply the way we’re wired.

This weekend taught me the immense power of just building stuff. Intentionally creating a rough prototype in a short time frame fosters non-attachment to your ideas. The uglier, the better. It creates an environment of openness to the critical feedback needed to design better. It enables rapid movement through the feedback loop which gives rise to more iterations resulting in real solutions. Consistently building stuff helps creates movement and momentum to get things started and keep them going. The toughest part is getting out of your own way.

When in doubt, just start building a rough prototype and be open to where it leads.

5 Responses

  1. Daniel Ogilvie

    I was fortunate enough to meet Fred at Confest a couple years back and have to say he is one the the most inspired and active people out there. I am super excited by this project you guys have done here. Did it work in the end?

    • msayla

      The gasifier did indeed work. It was gasifying wood quite efficiently with a smokeless burn. The next phase is the reactor chamber and the add ons that produce all of the byproducts (i.e. gasoline) and the community is planning on having another weekend where they come together and try to tackle the next piece.

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