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We have a potato problem to solve!

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

History can give interesting situations to ponder about and think of innovative ways in which one can solve a problem, given the restrictions that the time period imposes. The tweens and the teens at the Young Executives Club went back in time to the 18th century to try and solve a pressing problem for King Fredrick the Great.

The context: Prussian King Fredrick the Great had a pressing problem to solve. Bread used to be a staple diet for his people. However the price of bread was going up steadily. There was little he could do on the supply side and hence he decided to look for alternatives and discovered that potato could be a good substitute. However, there was a problem. The people had never eaten potatoes before. Worse, they considered it to be poisonous as it looked dirty. Farmers refused to follow the King's decree to cultivate potatoes and people refused to eat them too. The King did the most obvious thing one could possibly do - he lectured them about the health benefits of potato and how cultivation of potatoes was economical. Even better they could be stored easily for long periods of time. However, the people did not budge.

The problem in hand: The King needed to somehow convince people to try potatoes before the prices of bread went out of control. What could he have done to convince the people? The enthusiastic tweens and teens at the Young Executives Club jumped into action looking at the problem from different perspectives.

Active Learning through group discussion:

Different perspectives arise as different people make different connections with their own experiences, something that they had read about some where or heard about. This process always leads to invigorating discussions leading to very interesting discoveries. We recently had one such discussion at the Young Executives Club in the context solving King Fredrick's problem.

The different perspectives and solutions that emerged: It was fascinating to see the children suggest solutions such as "disguise" the potato in interesting/popular dishes combining interesting spices and flavours. But to be able to do that in 18th century, was next to impossible as the concept of "dining out" in restaurants did not exist. "Why not organise events with food that has potato and thus prove to the people that nothing untoward happened?" A couple of "Zoom" hands went up in the group. "That is a risky proposition. What if they feel the taste of potato and find it new?" "What if it is hard?" "Hmm, so that means the King's staff needs to make sure it is cooked properly. By the way the chefs need to learn to cook potatoes."

One thought led to another and in the process we had a macro view of his problem and even better, we were able to anticipate problems with any of our proposed approaches. For instance someone on the group suggested, "They could use other alternatives that have the similar nutritional benefits such as cauliflower and squash." "But these vegetables may be harder to grow and worse storage will be an issue. They don't last long and without the concept of refrigeration that we are used to today, these vegetables are likely to spoil very quickly."

One thought led to another and in the process we had a macro view of his problem and even better we were able to anticipate problems with any of our proposed approaches.
Creating new recipes

Similarly ideas such as creating new recipes, using the aroma of well cooked food with potatoes to do its magic, have celebrities eat the potato in front of the people, events that allow people to create their own recipes etc. came up. "My brother tends to eat the food that he makes on his own. So, why not try the same with the people?" suggested one of the teens. This idea in particular led to the question- "But how do we even make potatoes available when farmers are refusing to grow it on their farms?" "That's easy. The King could import potatoes for a short while and set these events in motion," suggested another teen. The group agreed that this would be a fine idea but it will have to be a super secret operation. Anything super secret makes a story interesting. Of course it needs tons of planning and trust.

The climax to the discussion

After 45 mins of intense discussion the white board was full and there was pensive silence on our Zoom meeting. "How about using reverse psychology? If people are told 'Don't eat potatoes, they will want to eat it." suggested one of the teens. Another responded, "True. But perhaps an even simpler idea would be for the King to eat it himself in front of a crowd and prove that potatoes are safe." This idea seemed to win the favour of many in the group and the consensus was that this is the best idea.

Discovering the nature of living in the 18th century vs now

This discussion led to more than one realisation- the most important of which was the fact that we are better off now than ever before. Things that we take for granted today were matters of great importance in history. Today potato is just another common vegetable well known for its versatility. To think of a time when people were hesitant to eat potatoes, refrigeration did not exist and King's responsibility that his people did not starve were all very intriguing for this generation of tweens and teens.

So how did King Fredrick the Great solve his problem? Read on


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