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Record Breakers! Say hello to the iPot

The room was bursting with undergraduates. In fact, had Roy Castle and Norris McWhirter walked in then the Record Breaking nature of what was about to happen would have been plain for all to see.

Simulations involving over 60 people in one open session are rare beasts. Yet thanks to a chance conversation with Dr Tassos Patokos of the University of Hertfordshire Business School we, and his sixty students, were about to indulge ourselves exactly that.

My mind went back to the chat Dr Patokos and I had over a glass of wine at a conference three months earlier. We had moved on from the euro-crisis and had started finding a more stable common ground, discussing how simulations can inject energy and creativity into learning. An expert in Game Theory, Dr Patokos was eager to see how such events played out, and how they might offer learning opportunities in which his undergraduate students could experience a different perspective on their work topics. We agreed to set something up.

I don’t think either of us were quite prepared for what we got. The numbers were daunting. The prospect of engaging over 60 undergraduate Economics students in an interactive, fast moving and emergent simulation was an exciting and challenging prospect. Holding the boundaries for this session might prove difficult - especially if the participants chose not to engage. But I controlled my anxiety. After all, Dr Patokos had assured me that numbers ‘might not be that high’, this wasn’t a compulsory element of the course. But here they were, busting out at the seems.

We knew that we might have to flex on numbers. So I purposefully kept the simulation very simple. It had to be. Anything overly complicated would be doomed to failure. The simulation I had opted for involved creating an extremely simplistic economic system in which a few suppliers, many manufacturers and a few customers were stakeholders in the creation of the new i-pot.

System diagram for the i-pot simulation

The i-pot system is a free market system, driven mainly by a desire to maximise profits. A small number of suppliers offered raw materials to manufacturers. Some offered just potatoes, some offered just pins, some offered potatoes and pins. Buyers from the manufacturers sourced the goods from the suppliers, and production teams within each firm created the product. Finished items were offered to consumers. Each manufacturing firm was a team, headed by a nominated MD, who was not allowed to touch any products at any time. S/he was there to lead, not get their hands dirty.

To the casual observer, the i-pot was nothing more than an out of date new potato with push-pins sticking in it. But to those of us involved in the simulation the i-pot was a thing of beauty, a highly differentiated product built by skilled craftsmen using the highest quality raw materials sourced from responsible suppliers and sold to a knowledgeable and highly valued customer.

And so the simulation ran. There were a few ground rules, enough to fill the back of a fag packet, but in truth, the students needed no briefing. Of course, part of the fascination - and learning - in this kind of event is in is observing how the system kicks into action. This involves looking not just at what happens but how it happens. Often, we'd review some of the deeper process going on below the surface, but for this group we kept to the more easily observable developments.

From the moment we started the clock running on the first phase it was apparent that this system was going to explode into life. Within minutes of getting underway the previously inclusive atmosphere gave way to dog eat dog competition and hard nosed business deals. Military metaphors advanced. Smiling and naïve students transformed into hard faced business people before our very eyes. We had created a competitive commercial situation and the human mind was responding in time honoured stereotypical fashion. Participants spoke of ‘killing the competition’, of ‘waging war’ and ‘winning the battle for customers’. Trade was brisk. Some good deals were done – and there were a fair few rip offs.

We allowed the simulation to burn a path for about an hour. I-pot production soared and currency changed hands rapidly. There was no sign of a recession in this market!

Sure, it was fun. But the learning was real, and we took time to reinforce key points as we came upon them. Regular ‘time outs’ throughout the simulation helped us to explore what was going on in the system from a number of perspectives. As well as the text book economics of the system we asked some pretty fundamental human questions. What was it like to be the MD of one of the i-pot producing plants? What did suppliers think of firms in the market? How were decisions being made? What company did the customers feel most inclined to buy from? Why? These and similar questions all served to raise an awareness of something very human going on in this outwardly dominantly economic system. Human differences played out in the simulation as they do in the real world. Entrepreneurial customers opted to bypass inflexible manufacturers and go straight to suppliers for a more affordable DIY outcome. What did this mean for manufacturers? What did it mean for suppliers? All good stuff.

The i-pot simulation allowed us to explore a cross section of real world situations. With such a potential similarity of offering, the manufacturers very quickly decided that product differentiation would be the best strategy. I-pots of all shapes and sizes began to flood the market, with at least one manufacturer offering a bespoke ‘design and build’ service to premium priced clients. In this unregulated market there was no respecting of design rights, the need for which creatively pressured manufacturers started to lobby for before the simulation had run its course.

The events that played out in this i-pot simulator were very real. We saw real people immersing themselves in a real system, forming alliances and bonds to get the best outcome for them. Participants used their past experiences to shape decisions, and knowledgeable observers would have enjoyed watching the group dynamics and process play out. We saw how an economic system can gather momentum , and how it can to some extent self-organise, self regulate and evolve. We saw social constructionism at work and above all, we saw smiles and boundless creative energy and enthusiasm from a group of talented young people.

I don’t know what the world record is for the number of potatoes used in a people focussed business simulation, but I am claiming it.

Thanks to Dr Tassos Patokos for being willing to attempt something out of the ordinary and to the students of the UoH for their amazingly contagious energy and creativity. Let's hope we can do more of this in the future.

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