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?”
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.
The solution: change the default. Instead, everyone is automatically enrolled in six months at a certain savings level. That’s the default. To change it, employees can fill out a form or go online to opt-out or change the contribution percentage. Some companies that have changed the default report 90 percent enrollment in their plans.
Here’s a solution so elegant that it solves two problems at once. You know those funny, blurry words you have to type in before you buy tickets online or send an email from a website? They’re called Captcha, which stands for “completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart.” The name was coined by a team of professors from Carnegie Mellon University. Apparently computers aren’t very good at making out blurry, misshapen letters. And we are. So Captcha stops people from setting up programs to spam or game website transactions.
But it turns out that the Captcha come from old newspapers and old books that are being digitized, with computers unable to read the documents because of the odd lettering. So while we’re proving that we’re humans and not machines, we are actually helping archivists determine what these letters and words are. A wonderful, painless form of crowdsourcing.
No problem seems more intractable right now than our polarized political system. Partisan politics are rampant and voter turnout, especially in smaller elections, is low.
The answer, despite what every politician on both sides says, is not to reform Washington. If that were the answer, it would have been done already. William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former policy advisor to President Clinton, makes the case for a simple solution in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times: mandatory voting.
He argues that mandatory voting would force parties to move to the middle. If 90-plus percent of the population votes, then politicians can’t cater to the extreme fringes of their parties. Policies will inevitably get more moderate. But this isn’t just his theory. He cites the fact that 31 democracies have some form of mandatory voting, including Australia, which has a voter turnout of about 95 percent with much less gridlock than we experience.
The beauty of simple solutions is that they are typically low-cost and low risk. But in order to adopt this kind of thinking, we need to reset our default for problem-solving. Right now, I think it’s set on complicated. We need to be more open to the power of simple.
Jim Sollisch is creative director at Marcus Thomas Advertising.