A long time ago I was struck by an idea.

It was the notion of wander lines.

Now, my memory is fuzzy, despite the idea remaining lodged firmly in my brain. My guess is that I saw the idea either in Emergence by Stephen Johnson or The Wisdom of Crowds by Jame Surowiecki. Both are books I recommend.

Now, wander lines are used by some town planners to help them to decide where to put the public pathways and pavements. Houses are built and sold, or otherwise occupied, and the ground around the houses are left rough. As people begin to use their houses and to generally go about their business they begin to find the best ways around the buildings. Their collective footprints begin to mark the ground and the town planners are given a clear sense of where people will walk, and therefore where to build the pavements.

This idea has stayed with me and has begun to flash red as my studies have taken me into the realm of innovation and creativity. What if others used wanderlines before they created public structures and organisations. What would the world look like then? What if structures (built places/organistions/products/processes) followed the user rather than trying to stuff the user into the mass-produced mould?

Well, it turns out that wanderlines are used in other ways. A recent tweet from Gemma Hutton of the Myseum blog spoke about how the Wall Street Journal reported in their article ‘The museum is watching you’ that museums in America are employing people to watch how the public uses the museums, how many people stop to look at a piece, how many read the information, how may simply walk straight through. They are gathering rich data about the way in which people engage with the structure of their organisation. They are looking at the wanderlines, although they don’t call it that. The best bit is that some are changing the way they curate exhibitions as a result.

Design giants IDEO also know the power of watching rather than asking. They know that people don’t always know why they use a product in a certain way, or how they might use it differently. They know that the act of asking muddies the the answer. So IDEO prefer to watch. They describe this element of their work as anthropology. Perfect.

Just as open source technology allows the users to feed directly into the innovation of technology, allowing for a collapse of the power between the capitalist and the consumer, wanderlines could be open source in the physical world. Libraries, town centres, schools, workplaces could all innovate based on rich knowledge about how their users actually use them. Especially important is how users adapt, cheat, break the rules, and take short cuts. Just by watching, observing and recording we could see how our people are using place and space and could adapt development to harness this use. We could fill our sails with the winds of the wanderlines. We’d be knocking on open doors.

Sugru is a new product that I stumbled upon at a recent trip to the design museum. The best way I can describe it is like a blu tac that dries, or maybe something akin to fimo or air drying clay. Their tag line is ‘Hack it better’. It can be used to improve, adapt or fix everyday mass produced products to suit the individual needs of the user. This is open source wanderline thinking at the household level. How could companies use it? Give their customers a few packs of sugru and their product and ask them to adapt away, and then pay attention to what happens.

Look at your clients, your staff, students, public. Look at what you want to achieve. The chances are that they are already showing you how.