— Cultural Sources of Newness

Families and friends as cultural sources of newness

A series of conversations at a factory deep in the German countryside last week made me wonder about families and friendships as cultural sources of newness. Professor Artur Fischer, reputed to be one of the world’s most prolific inventors, had invited me to visit his company, Fischerwerke GmbH & Co KG.

We had first met in September 2011 at the Staatstheater Mannheim, as panellists in the Utopie Station “Kreative Gesellschaft 2030”. Among the points that struck me that evening was how often the 92-year old Artur Fischer mentioned his mother in his descriptions of the development of his ideas and values. I wanted to learn more from this down-to-earth, determined, extremely successful man who spoke so simply and personally about the drive to invent. A drive that has led to over 1000 patents, many of which relate to the original concept of a screw anchor.

During the panel discussion I learned that the little grey object we insert into the wall to hold a screw is in fact called a “Fischer Dübel”. Until then the name Fischer had been associated in my mind with the sets of Fischer Technik we had bought for our children to construct things with. I learned that these toys are a very small part of the business but a relevant part of the invention story. During his childhood there was no money for toys, but he had wanted to be an engineer ever since he could remember. Later he wanted to make it possible for children to develop their imaginations and skills, so he invented for them what he had not had: Fischer Technik.

A little over a year after our first meeting in Mannheim, I flew to Stuttgart and was met by a retired employee who still drives for Artur Fischer, and we glided through the fog for almost an hour, suddenly emerging into a countryside bathed in sunlight. We arrived at our destination whose name none of my friends or colleagues had yet heard, Tumlingen, Waldachtal. A typically German situation: an internationally known company headquartered in place that even most Germans do not know about. During the drive the chauffeur (who knows Artur Fischer so well that they are on a first name and “Du” basis, as I later observed) explained that the line of Fischer Technik toys had grown out of relationships with customers and suppliers: Artur Fischer had wanted company gifts for their children.

Over coffee, Artur Fischer explained the role his mother had played, with strong discipline and encouragement for his interest in engineering from the earliest years. Also a teacher at school who not only gave him tips on how to build an aquarium and a heating element, but also how to negotiate prices with the local merchant, his first step towards business. He spoke of failed experiments, for example in trying to invent flying equipment, and again his mother was part of the picture, showing him the learning to be had as much from what does not work as from what does work.

A director of production then guided me through factory halls, explaining the products and the machines they had invented to make and package them. After he showed me one of the newer products that was invented to use less steel, given the price of the raw material, I asked which kind of trigger lay behind most of their inventions: a problem (like the price of steel), an opportunity to be taken advantage of, or an idea looking for an outlet? He responded that the latter two were more frequent triggers of innovation in the company, but the other examples he showed me seemed to fit the first type better. For example, I saw an upside-down metal funnel that workers had designed to distribute the plugs evenly when they dropped into the bin, rather than piling up in a pyramid that someone had to flatten out by hand. Later we walked by mobile oil containers that simplify and speed up the process of recycling the oil used in the big machines, again an idea that had been sparked off by employees talking together.

What struck me was that the production manager constantly referred to “we” in his descriptions of how things were done, discussed and decided on the shop floor. I wondered whether he thought this was a special feature of this company, but he had started with Fischer 22 years ago at the age of 15, so had no basis for comparison with other corporate cultures. When I told him about my research on artistic interventions in organizations, he remembered having had art classes as part of his apprenticeship program because Artur Fischer thought it was important to have a well-rounded approach to training.

My inspiring conversation with Artur Fischer continued in the museum he has created in an old farmhouse. Downstairs are exhibits of local crafts and traditional farming equipment, and upstairs are examples of Fischer inventions. Expecting to see multiple variations of screw anchors, I was surprised to find a glass case full of flash equipment for cameras, and wondered what had led to that series of inventions? He explained that he had asked a photographer to take a picture of his little daughter but she had pointed out that there was not enough light indoors for the picture to be good. So… he invented flashes, numerous models, getting smaller, more flexible—and the collection included the flashcube he had designed for Agfa. We walked by cases with the Fischer Dübel, and with Fischer Technik. And other different lines of inventions, like tape cassette decks and CD holders for cars. As Artur Fischer said quietly and matter-of-factly, an inventor invents and his creativity is not limited to any particular field.

He is still inventing. He pulled out of his jacket pocket three prototypes he would like the company to start producing. But that decision lies with the next generation in the family company, and they are not gripped by the same kind of personal drive to invent, so other criteria dominate. I sensed during this visit that families and friends can be cultural sources of newness, at least for a generation.