The Wiki Man

What do you get if you cross a suitcase with rollerblades?

How the best inventions are the result of evolution

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

A 14-year-old at an American school recently caused a stir when he claimed that the US government could save over $400 million annually on the cost of printer ink if the default printer font were switched from Times New Roman to Garamond.

Major effects can often be achieved by relatively trivial improvements. One of the things I have always hated about the European passport (apart from the word ‘European’, obviously) is the fact that the pages and the cover are all the same size. How much shorter would all immigration queues be were the photograph page just an eighth of an inch narrower than other pages, so the damned thing flipped open at the right place?

But these little incremental improvements are not really the stuff from which really interesting innovations arise. The most interesting progress seems to emerge from the mating of different ideas. This process of recombination is excellently described by Matt Ridley in a talk called ‘When ideas have sex’.

What really changes the world is when different ideas, often from different fields, breed to create something new. Sometimes the origins of these ideas are relatively niche, trivial or frivolous. For instance wheeled luggage seems to have been a remarkably late invention: as Nassim Taleb once asked, ‘How come we put a man on the moon before we thought of adding wheels to a suitcase?’ I investigated this, and it seems to be that the high-quality wheels which make this idea work came from technology developed for in-line roller-skates.

Other ideas start with a small niche market before becoming mainstream. Ten years ago, I wondered why dustpans did not have long handles, so that you needn’t grovel on the floor to use them. After an extensive search, I managed to buy a long-handled dustpan from a website specialising in products for the disabled. Last week I noticed this design is now the standard model sold in Lakeland.

There is a small £30 dongle you can now buy called the Google Chromecast, which lets you take online video (from the BBC iPlayer, BT Sport, YouTube, Netflix and so on) and with a couple of clicks, display it on your television instead of your computer or phone. It’s pretty useful in itself — and, hey, it’s £30. But I have a hunch that its most important use will be for something unintended by its creators: video-conferencing.

There are several reasons why video-conferencing has been so slow to take off. In the business world, it was mistakenly sold as ‘the poor man’s air travel’ when it should have been positioned as ‘the rich man’s phone call’. But in the home setting, I think there is another problem. Bluntly put, video-conferencing on a PC or mobile phone fails because we just don’t like many people enough to want their face within two feet of our own. Combined with fibre optic broadband, the Chromecast may finally make face-to-face chats emotionally tolerable and sociable via your television.

This recombinatory process, it seems to me, explains why capitalism works well. Not, as economists claim, because it is efficient, but for precisely the opposite reason: because it is so magnificently wasteful. Utterly niche or even pointless fields create a diversity of ideas, most of which fail or lead nowhere in the same way that most fashions lead nowhere. But occasionally, and unpredictably, two or more of these ideas mate to create some new adaptation which is greater than either. The same process works in nature. It seems birds may have first evolved the wings and plumage necessary for flight for mating display, not transportation. Over time, Darwin always beats Adam Smith.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.

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  • E Hart

    Another consideration with the wheeled suitcase – and one which may have caused the development lag – was that mass travel used to be confined to people who never had to lift a finger let alone a case. The average toff never carried his own cases even in wartime. Case carrying, like shoe polishing, was one of the first examples of outsourcing. As things seem resolutely set in reverse gear, such things are likely to come back into fashion.

    If you read accounts of the Boer War, for example, the kit British officers took with them could have made a laager in its own right. In fact one of the reasons why the Boers didn’t wiped us out in those red uniforms was the proliferation of trouser presses, canteens of cutlery, wardrobes and picnic hampers. They just couldn’t get clear line of sight.

    As for the long-handled dustpan, that was cracked long ago by the Señora Gomez’s maid, yet it never took off in Britain until mass tourism took hold and it came back from the “New World” with olives, sombreros and straw donkeys. Nature may not have any imagination as Baudelaire said, but it has always helped us develop ours.

    • rorysutherland

      You are absolutely right on the suitcase question. I suspect that even people who carried their own luggage wished to use the same luggage as people who were richer than them – in the same way that people who had no butler still put the telephone in the hall or pantry.

      Your last two paragraphs are interesting too. It is too rarely said that allowing Bulgaria to train doctors or plumbers and then hiring them over here is a rather predatory practice. Further education has become a three-year job application process which you pay for yourself.

      • E Hart

        When there are 26m jobless in the EU this has everything to do with economics. How many people today – aside from celebrities, engineers, academics and those sowers of magic pixie dust, the bankers – would choose to up sticks from everyone and everything they know? Not many. They do it, like those who moved from the Old World to the Americas 19th and early 20th century, because their own societies offer little but unemployment, poverty, social inequality and non-representative, sclerotic political systems. It’s an extraordinary dissipation of talent, but who can blame them?

        Were Australia offering £1 Pom tickets, I’d imagine there would be another rush to the exit from Britain like there was in the 1950s and 1960s. The trouble is globalisation often means exchanging one set of iniquities for another. You are just as likely to find yourself on a zero hours contract in the “New World” as you are in the Old one.

        My real point on mobility was domestic, though. Too many people in Britain travel ridiculous distances to and from work when they could be employed locally (outwith choice and personal financial considerations).

        If you are an employer in Glasgow, why take on someone who lives in Edinburgh and vice versa? The mantra of the “best person for the job” doesn’t equate when you have people (of all professions) who could demonstrably work locally but can’t. When HR is trying to justifying its existence, the first question it should ask is: can this post be filled by someone who lives locally? If nothing else it would reduce some of the rush-hour crush and expense on the roads and railways.

        • rorysutherland

          Actually there is a very good practical reason to favour local hiring as an employer. If you conduct studies to see which factors best predict the value to you of a job applicant, the proximity of his home to your workplace (although generally ignored in hiring decisions) is one of the best – far better, in fact, than many of the factors which are taken into account when deciding whom to hire.

          The reason is that most employees are slightly costly to you in the early stages and become far more valuable with time. Local staff stay much longer on average.

          As one business wag observed, in any given company 20% of the staff have just joined and don’t know what they are doing; another 20% are planning to leave and are more or less worthless. All the value is created by the other 60%.

          • E Hart

            It obviously makes sense on a variety of levels. The other mystery to me is why an employer would take on staff (esp. sales personnel) allow them to build up a presence, goodwill, a network and revenue, only to let them go over some trifling wage demand (relative to their value). It’s Insane.

            Role play is a problem; too many employees accept a role without ever questioning it. The Honourable Company of Turd Polishers is a British institution. Employees are never allowed to question the system – that’s inviolate. They have to continue making the same mistakes, accept obvious contradictions and focus of inane quality rubrics which are totally undermined by systemic inefficiencies.

  • Tom

    Not an example of ideas having sex, but of trivial improvements that could make a difference.

    A hack to the Taxi meter

    allows you to pay before you stop.

    This may not seem like a huge thing alone, but knowing how congestion builds around stopped taxis waiting for payment, I can imagine this speeding traffic by 1mph around the city and saving millions a year in productive time.

    If they could just fix the incredibly slow receipt printers….

  • Shinsei1967

    I’m just back from staying in a house in Madrid over Easter.

    It had dust pans with long handles.