Can Vending Machines Save the World?

Anything can be a social change tool. Don’t believe me? Think about that title for a minute, then keep reading. You’ll see how some open-mindedness and a trick called random input are the keys to breakthrough social change ideas.

How can a vending machine avert climate change disaster, end world hunger, fight opioid abuse, and cure mental illness? The truth lies in taking a creative look at what vending machines are and what they do.

Random Input

It does take a ton of creative thinking to see any connection between drug abuse and vending machines. There is a connection though. In fact, you can find a connection between just about anything and just about anything else if you try. That is what the brainstorming technique of random input is about. You force yourself to look for connections between things that have nothing in common.

How is reducing opioid addiction like buying from a vending machine?

How is a recycling program like a vending machine?

Take a few minutes to write down everything you associate with vending machines. Where are they, usually? What are they made of? What do they sell? How do they work? How do you pay? Who makes vending machines? I think you get the idea.

Now, write down whatever comes to mind and come back in a few minutes.

Defining Your Challenge

The first step in random input is to state your challenge. You can make a statement or a question, but do make it specific.

BAD: Solve poverty in the city.

GOOD: Reduce homelessness in the city.

GOOD: How can we reduce homelessness in the city by at least 50%?

Now you’ve got a target for your creative thinking — homelessness in this case. Now, you need something random that be a focus for your thinking.

Don’t use a vending machine in your challenge. Do this instead: Go grab a dictionary and open it up. Pick the first noun on the page.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say you did this and the word was ‘lizard’. How is a lizard like a recycling program? Off the top of my head, I have no idea. But that’s the point.

Now, spend a few minutes writing down the characteristics or features of a recycling program. When you’ve done that, review each thing and see how if you come up with a new idea. Don’t expect anything breathtakingly original to appear just because you spent a few minutes on this exercise. Instead, expect to find the seed of a good idea or two.

Let’s take a look at what I got when I did this lizard and recycling program thing. Let’s start with ‘lizard’:

They scare some people but are mostly harmless.

They can drop their tails to escape predators.

They are popular pets.

They are cold blooded.

They come in a wide range of sizes but almost all of them eat meat.

That list took about 90 seconds to brainstorm and type up. If you can add to the list, then come back.

Lizards use sun and shade to regulate their temperature. Maybe there could be an incentive to recycle that varies with demand. Maybe there could be a tax credit that goes up when recycling participation drops. From “they can drop their tales to escape predators” I got the idea of having a truck that drops recycling bins in the morning and picks up the full bins in the evening.

Those ideas aren’t too useful as described here, but one of them could be valuable after a little work. This example focused on one way you can use random input, to improve a thing. Let’s take a closer look at this application next.

Random Input for a Thing

Often we want to improve a person, a place, or a thing. Maybe your organization needs to serve more people without getting more money. Random input can help here. Let’s revisit that example of reducing homelessness for a minute.

How is a vending machine like a homeless shelter?

How are vending machines like food pantries?

Random Input and Processes

You may want to improve a process or program. Say a food pantry is one of your programs but you feel like you need to do more without more resources. How will that work? Don’t hope for inspiration; sit down and create a new idea. Try random input as a way to stimulate new thinking: How is running a food pantry like planning a vacation? Take a few minutes to list things associated with planning a vacation. Something to do with vacation planning might just help you improve that food pantry.

You may want a new approach to helping drug addicts kick their opioid habit. Try a creative question: How is helping drug addicts like mowing the lawn? Write down things you associate with mowing the lawn, then look for ideas in that list. You may just find a new way to run a substance abuse treatment program.

So, vending machines can save the world.



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Chester Davis

Chester Davis


Sociologist, blogger, and sci-fi writer who cares about sociological thinking, science fiction, sustainability, social change, and nonprofits