BERLIN -- On the heels of the Vietnam War in 1975, Laos fell under the control of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, sparking an exodus that cost the country ten percent of its population. As refugees, Van Bo Le-Mentzel's family sought asylum in Germany, eventually settling in the West Berlin district of Wedding.
"It was like my reset button had been pressed," Le-Mentzel said of his childhood. "Other kids had parents who were doctors, teachers, grocers or lawyers to follow, and I was starting at zero. No one told me what to be – and that turned out to be an advantage.”
Indeed, the non-conformity Le-Mentzel experienced in his formative years seems to inform everything he does today. His most high-profile project, Hartz IV Möbel (Do-It-Yourself Furniture), is now a book containing literal blueprints for how to "build more and consume less." Of course, production of the book itself was somewhat unusual:
"We found the consumers first: the book was written by the people who wanted to have it," Le-Mentzel said. "They had to shoot the photos, do the interviews and research – they even financed the printing of the book. So the whole process went exactly the other way around."
The project and its workshops are tapping into a growing do-it-yourself movement not unrelated to niche markets served by businesses like Etsy and technology such as 3D printing. Where crowdsourcing and crowdfunding are buzzwords today, Le-Mentzel sees crowd participation growing into something more.
"I think 100 years ago with the steam engine, the vision was mobility, 50 years ago it was education and information, and today we want to share everything, from information to cars and bikes,” Le-Menzel said.
“The next step in my eyes will be to look at how we can use our productive time and resources to become the happiest.”
Le-Mentzel describes his vision as one of a "karma economy" in which everybody can build and innovate for a better world. At a time when experts are pointing out a seeming decline in big-scale innovation over the past 50 years, encouraging “social innovation” seems like a worthwhile endeavor.
"Perhaps, we’re seeing less ‘big Innovation,’ supplanted by more pervasive everyday innovation," SmartPlanet’s Joe McKendrick suggested at the end of September, citing Greg Satell's outline of four areas – computers, nanotechnology, genomics and artificial intelligence – in which science and technology have advanced significantly.
But Le-Mentzel sees everyday innovation manifesting itself in other more social ways:
“If you don't like something, regardless of what it is: politics, society, education… do we have to accept it at face value, or could we do certain things ourselves, perhaps even better?”
The architect and design strategist says his next area of interest is production. He has already decided to produce his own version of Chuck Taylor sneakers, hopefully with the help of 499 other users of German crowdfunding platform StartNext.
“I’m a huge Chucks fan, but I’m completely confused as to why big companies get to decide how these shoes will be made, namely in sweatshops. So we’ve done the research, planning and organization, we just need 499 more people who want them.”
Why all the disruptive fuss, one may ask?
“I think you can compare our society with a tree farm where everything is planned out and systematic,” Le-Mentzel said.
“But I want to know if the branches begin to twist and grow another way? Or can you have roots that begin to veer out into the roots of other trees? What are ‘roots’ anyway? It has a lot to do with the idea of freedom. What are choices we can make, and when can we rebel a little?”
PHOTO: Emrullah Gümüşsoy