It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that most of the world’s problems are directly caused by either:

A. A misunderstanding of economics 
B. A misuse of economics

And yet, an understanding of economics seems to be incredibly rare, whether it’s a general understanding we all share or the deep understanding we expect from those in charge.

Academia probably has a lot to do with the poor state of economics. Certainly when I was studying the progression routes seemed to be either further academic obscurity or working for a bank; academic fame versus making money from money.

And yet, what we really need economists for is to bring an interconnected logic to the world; to use an understanding of scarcity, cause and effect, equilibrium for a more worthwhile purpose than making money for other people or looking clever. 

And most importantly it would be great if some of that understanding became embedded in our culture, so that when we’re told a story about something in the press we can put it into context, maybe seek out the right information, relate it to other things. 

How many of the worst periods in our history have exploited a lack of economic thinking? When we believe that the arrival of a few immigrants signals the collapse of our economy then something has gone very wrong.

I personally believe that economics is one of the best critical thinking subjects out there, and yet schools so often teach it as facts and figures, names and dates. We need people to come out of school able to take on the biggest issues we face, but we don’t seem to be doing much to make that happen.

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The more complex the unit of design, the less we are likely to question it. Simple products can be easily evaluated; when a bottle opener doesn’t work we’re happy to point to its flaws. But we rarely do this with systems, organisations, governments.

We rely on our direct relationship with things to provide our opportunity to critique them. My nan’s relationship with democracy often came down to which doorstopping man looked the “nicest”. That’s not a criticism of her, it’s simply a statement of how much mental energy we can all be bothered to expend on anything more abstract than that which we’re shown.

Perhaps we judge our local government on whether our bins get collected. In democracy terms it’s about as valid as the nice-looking man. In many cases this inability to think about anything bigger than our direct point of contact with something is used against us. Charities don’t ask us to question whether the unit of a charity is the best way to help people in need, they just tell us the story of one person.

This blind acceptance of the core unit of design, whether it’s a business or an entire system of democracy, changes over time. We’re beginning to show a similar indifference to the fundamental existence of a whole new set of design units, from startups to platforms. And as with everything else we’re falling for the actors without thinking about the play.

I was originally going to write something about a subtractive view of design, or rather how design should focus more on how to take things away than how to create. 

After all, truly good designs simplifies, removes obstacles, eliminates problems. Good design brings clarity, reduces uncertainty. And yet we often think of design in terms of what we create, of the shiny newness. Whether it’s the tangible output or the tools of the process we’re always adding.

But even the most tangible of design objects, the prototype, is primarily concerned with subtraction; we prototype to reduce uncertainty, to take away the unknown. 

It’s easy to forget the core value of subtraction when so much of design is about creating, and there’s a lot that could be written (and certainly has) about how to frame design in subtraction terms. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is how subtraction could be more of a unifying framework for ways of working that intersect with design, such as the Agile and Lean approaches we’ve been exploring, with others, more recently. 

In each of these fields it’s worth asking, “what are we trying to take away?” And in answering that question perhaps we get to a simpler set of principles through which to explore how we develop things of value in the best possible context. 

In service design we are constantly trying to remove things: uncertainty around what to create, barriers to usage, walls between silos, misunderstanding of users’ needs. Many of these things apply to Agile approaches too. A focus on functioning outputs seeks to remove uncertainty in a similar way to the prototypes of design. Agile also works hard to remove the organisational barriers, to eliminate as much as is possible the obstacles to trust and shared purpose.

And with Lean, we’re working hard reduce waste, to unblock whatever stands in the way of creating value. We’re trying to remove the internal and external blocks, as much as internal and external is still a valid way of viewing things. 

In everything that seeks to create value in the widest sense, from the people we make things for to the teams that help make them, the true focus should be subtraction. It’s possible to dig deeper into it, create lists, explore frameworks, but that wasn’t the aim of this post. It was something I was thinking about and wanted to start writing down. It would be good to know what others think. 

The word “experiment” seems to have two, almost different meanings. One one hand we think of it as a one-off, radical thing; experimental art and music are out there, crazy, avant garde. The opposite of systematic, methodical.

On the other hand we have science. Experiments in science are a core process. They’re how we do science and they’re very much systematic and methodical.

Lean Startup reminded me of this apparent dichotomy. Lean Startup experiments are designed, methodical, iterative, repetitive (if done properly). In fact they become one of the only truly meaningful ways to learn anything, in the same way that babies learn: trying something new, making mistakes, trying something different. Human beings all grow up this way and then at some point in our lives most of us start to lose the will to experiment.

Eventually we start to see the experiment as something outside our normal behaviour, rather than the mode of our behaviour. If we’re not careful we apply this outside view to everything in life. We forget that methodical concepts like strategy are heavily reliant on experiment. Rather than strategy being a known entity we execute, strategy is simply a framework for experiment, and what we do naturally as babies we need to design as adults.

The last couple of weeks saw the sad demise of a really great app, How Do. It allowed you to take pictures of the steps involved in doing something interesting and leave some audio commentary along the way. It was a treasure trove of wonderful little tips and tricks, but sadly it’s no more.

The thing is, I never properly used it. Yes, I browsed what was on there, and I had it installed on my phone. But never once did I leave a tip myself. I don’t know what caused its founders to pull the plug but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to like the idea without fully engaging.

When you’re looking at your phone all the time, when it’s your window on the world, it’s very easy to use those apps that involve nothing more than your brain and your phone. There’s little to separate a thought and a tweet. It’s even easier to engage with something that starts and ends at the same interface; we can all retweet and we can all share links.

But when an app requires you to engage with the real world and create something that starts somewhere else, like when you’re cooking, we end up with a sort of reality friction. We forget that the app exists. We remember when it’s too late.

Marketing people grapple with a similar issue: Top of Mind. Companies like Coca Cola devote almost their entire marketing spend to one thing. When you go into a shop with a thirst they want you to think of Coke. At the crucial point they want you to associate Coke with Quenching. It’s a split second decision; millions spent on a moment.

Most apps don’t have that kind of budget, or the inclination to invest in what it takes to achieve that traditional ubiquity. So what do they do? Beyond the initial flurry of interest, how do they stay in our thoughts?

Recently I’ve noticed more and more Push Notifications in Foursquare, a company that seems to be working on Top of Mind through direct action. And the technology works well for this purpose, however annoying it might be. GPS is the natural friend of Top of Mind for a geo-location app.

For many apps, however, there’s a greater challenge. How do they know I’m baking a special cake? How do they know I’m tying a tricky knot? Technology gets us so far, like in the Foursquare example, but some of these challenges need deeper consideration.

If we’re going to discover amazing things we need apps like How Do to thrive. It’s not enough to know where someone is or what they’re thinking. We want to engage vicariously with the physical world, the amazing things people can do, in ways that make us feel part of it. And yet it feels like we’re still a long way off.

Instead of imagining that we’re creating perpetual engines with our ideas, a little push in the right direction to conquer the world, let’s imagine that all ideas are fundamentally stupid and work back from their inevitable demise.

Here’s a handy formula:

Stupidity Formula

i = the level of investment required
s = the stupidity of the idea
t = the length of time you want people to think the idea isn’t stupid

Note that s is squared. Stupid ideas have an exponential impact on everything.

There’s an exercise called The Five Whys. You may have heard of it. The aim is to keep asking “why?” until you get back to the root of an issue. It’s a good exercise; it teaches us not to accept face value, but it also makes an assumption. It almost makes us believe that we are capable of a broad perspective, that we can fully escape the context of something.

Last week I was in another country, talking to someone about education. I have a lot of conversations about education, some self-initiated, others through no fault of my own. My position on education is pretty clear: I think that school is fundamentally wrong. I think that subjects, lessons, teachers and grades comprise the worst possible way for children to learn.

Most of the time, when I’m talking to people in the UK, I can get this point across relatively easily. Not everyone agrees with it but more people than you might imagine will happily consider the perspective.

Most people in the UK don’t realise how easy it is to take their children out of school here. Many don’t even realise it’s possible. Any yet they’re often very quick to accept the fact, and engage with the possibilities.

However, in those countries where schooling is compulsory it’s a very different picture. What’s most noticeable is that many of the people in those countries find it really difficult to engage with the unschooling perspective on education. It’s almost like we hit a wall.

But this post isn’t about education, it’s about context. What fascinates me about people in places where home education is illegal is that it often seems to define their perspective on it. I’m not generalising or saying it’s true of everyone but the conversations I’ve had, where we appear to reach a limit of understanding, a fundamental disconnect, seem to suggest some hard-wiring.

This will be true of people in the UK on other topics of course. There will be things that are so programmed into us that almost no amount of “Five Whying” will enable us to escape our preconceptions. This seems increasingly the case when we talk about “digital”.

Free will is an impossible concept. I was watching my daughter playing Flappy Bird on my phone and thinking about this stupid notion of “Digital Natives”. Beyond all the assumptions that Digital is Good and that The Web Will Save Us, there are more damaging justifications around children’s relationship with technology.

When we talk about how much children are into screens and technology we forget that we’ve created this context for them. In many cases screens are thoroughly absorbing for children purely because they’re better than the rest of the crap we’ve made for them. Ask yourself whether you’d rather learn your times tables or play Minecraft. It doesn’t mean that Minecraft is the future. It just means that times tables aren’t.

So, sometimes we have to remember that we haven’t made anything particularly brilliant; we’ve just created a little escape valve. The things we think are brilliant only seem that way because we mentally can’t escape the context we live in. But we do need to escape that context, whether it’s there because of society, or law, or our democratic system, or our love of technology. Sometimes it’s there just because the alternative is impossible to comprehend, like a universe with no end.