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In pre-industrial times, most rural villages had a skilled blacksmith who served villagers’ needs in anything forged from metal, be it horseshoes, stone breaking wedges, ploughs or just nails and hinges for new wooden houses.

Now that I’ve lived on the countryside for 8 years, I’ve slowly acquired most tools to do basic basic metal works myself, with cutters, welding machines, anvils and hammers. And yes, I’m now eyeing a lathe too. It was not my original intention to do all this myself, but there has been no service provider available for supporting my (smallish) needs with plumbing, antennae, forestry and small farming.

The village blacksmith was a respected member of the community, a job which was usually inherited from parents and passed on. Why was this (business) model successful and prevalent for such a long time, but is no more?

A standard answer is industrialization and new transport capabilities – cheap, mass produced metal items which could suddenly be transported from the other side of the planet. Most of them (like pressed ploughs) were initially of inferior quality and rusted quickly, but a new one was so cheap that the old one was simply disposed of. The blacksmith got less and less things to forge or fix, and was finally out of work. The era of unsustainability had begun.

But it was not only the blacksmith’s paycheck (or other means of exchange like cattle, grain or wood) which was lost. The core of her/his business model was to know every customer, their horses and everything metallic they were using. Some were visited every spring during ploughing time, some came by regularly to get their farming tools sharpened. Everything had warranty – Service Level Agreements might have been non-verbal but nevertheless very strong – everyone knew where the blacksmith lived.

It is only now with the emergence of Spimes and the Internet of Things that the idea of personalized, evolving services is truly reappearing – but this time the marketplace is not just the village, it is the world. We need to re-learn to know our customers and serve them sustainably. With the blinding transparency caused by the Internet, customers will find out your unsustainability or cheats; just think of Volkswagen.

I can easily envision a global village blacksmith, specializing in highly durable and comfortable, customized horseshoes. Each new farm customer would first get a set of sensorized test shoes for each horse. After a few days of riding and walking, enough pressure and tension information would be gathered and sent via the customer’s mobile phone back to the blacksmith. Each horse would then get their own custom shoes, with simpler sensors to ensure that they remain optimal. After some time, the blacksmith would know the walking habits of millions of horses globally and would use this information for further improvements. Each customer would be known and treated respectfully – it just takes an attitude change, and a sustainable, global platform. Doable today, once again.


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