On the lookout for simple solutions, like cloth diapers
I make a note of simple solutions when I spot them in books or articles. Especially ones that are right in front of our faces. Here are simple solutions to five problems: diapers, energy waste, insufficient retirement savings, archiving of old books, and that perennial, partisanship.
Here’s one of my favorite back-to-the-future stories. It’s 9:00 p.m. and a suburban mother runs out of diapers. So she has to pack her four-year-old and her infant in the car to make a diaper run. The four-year old, half asleep, mutters, “Why can’t someone make a diaper you can use over again?”Skip to next paragraph
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Brilliant. A simple solution to a very complex solution that has become a big problem. Disposable diapers rank third among consumer items in landfills and take up 4 percent of all landfill space.
Cloth diapers can be used over and over again. They cut down on late night trips to the store, and they don’t get thrown away. In fact, when they’re done being diapers, they live a long and useful life as the world’s best rags. (Before you throw your dirty diapers at me, I have five kids and so I get the convenience of disposable diapers, of which I’ve used my share. But we also used cloth diapers and the adjustment was a small sacrifice for the big cost savings).
I’m fascinated by simple solutions. I make a note of them when I spot them in books or articles. Especially ones that are right in front of our faces and don’t cost anything but a small leap of imagination.
I don’t buy the idea that every complicated problem needs a complicated solution. So here are four more simple, low-tech solutions to some deeply ingrained, multifaceted problems.
The first two come from the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness,” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. They call these solutions “nudges,” because they gently push people toward behaviors that are better for them or the planet without regulation or coercion. Many of these nudges are so simple and elegant that they feel as obvious as gravity once they reveal themselves.
Problem: Utility companies are mandated by law to get their customers to reduce consumption. So they do advertising campaigns, print expensive brochures, and design websites to encourage consumers to use less. The result? Minimal reductions that may have happened anyway. A waste of paper, ink, and server space.
Solution: smiley faces. Seriously. In San Marcos, Calif., 300 households received bills that illustrated how much energy they had used in the previous month along with how much energy their neighbors had used. The households that were above the norm dramatically decreased their consumption. But the households that were below the norm increased their consumption slightly.
So in the next month’s bill, households that were below average received a smiley face emoticon. And they stayed below the norm. According to Thaler and Sunstein, this is a great example of a social nudge.
My favorite example from “Nudge” is a no-cost solution for companies that want to increase the number of employees who contribute to their 401(k) retirement accounts, which hovers at around 30 percent nationally.
At the vast majority of companies, new employees are told that in six months (or whatever the prescribed period of employment), they can fill out a form or go to a website to activate their 401(k) account and determine what percentage they want taken out of their pay. Inertia takes over and six months later, only a small percentage of employees have started saving.