More on simplicity at TED 2010

February 15, 2010 — 4 Comments


I just got back from TED where the content was as great as usual, maybe even better, and the networking even crazier. There were definitely more movie stars around this year. I guess the move to Long Beach is good for them.

The topic of simplicity merited its own session as part of the overall theme of  “What the world needs now”. I have to say I thought the theme worked really well this time and it was nicely reinforced by the stage set which was representative of  start-up attic.

So, back to simplicity. It’s a topic I have covered here before but there were some thoughtful additions from a number of folks this week. The great mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot gave us a potted history of his amazing career which included the discovery of fractals. He asked the question “is there a science of simplicity?” His main point was that simple rules create complex outcomes.

George Whitesides, the most cited scientist around today, proposed a concept of simplicity built around four principles: predictability, low cost, high performance and stackability. The stackable idea was particularly interesting and relates to Mandelbrot’s point. Whitesides showed how things as complex as the inernet are a stack of simple ideas working together. So simple ideas are most useful when they can interact with other simple ideas to create complexity. Back to simple rules create complex outcomes.

Philip K Howard, the legal reformer, made a beautifully simple proposal that could cut through the crazy complexity of the contemporary US legal system. He proposes that instead of judging the law based on its effect on the individual it should be judged based on its effect on society. He has proposed a new form of health court in which a judge appoints technical experts to help him adjudicate civil cases. The argument is that we could save between $200billion and $600billion in US annual health costs by taking this approach.

The last inspirational contribution to simplicity came from designer Alan Siegel, founder of Siegel and Gale. He showed some stunning work he has been doing to simplify IRS forms and bank credit agreements. By taking a human centered approach and by using plain language Alan has created a real breakthrough. I desperately hope this particular form of simplicity will make it into the world very soon.

Tim Brown


4 responses to More on simplicity at TED 2010

  1. Looking forward to another exciting round of TED videos being posted. Indeed, simplicity is a topic that me myself as a science student often likes to think about. In a lecture, I often try to break down the lecturer’s topics into various categories and try to see the whole topic from there. In physics, which is my major, I have seen lots of examples of how physicists derive laws and use diagrams to make phenomena seem simpler.

    I think simplicity could go a long way in many things, in education, in research, in running an organization… It’s really about, bringing the subject into a more general light, like for instance, instead of using words like debt or credit, it’s just as simple as saying, “You borrowed from him, now you must return it.”
    It links diverse range of specializations and enables us to see things as a system (systems thinking)

    I think it would be good if we try thinking about how what we usually do can be reframed in a much simpler manner. I think things may be more efficient that way as well.

  2. Hi Tim,
    Thanks for featuring simplicity talks that came from this year’s TED. I hope Alan Siegel is very successfu in his pursuits – the IRS tax forms could use a serious simplicity overhaul!

  3. interesting how Whitesides mixes simple ideas to complexity but the outcome to me needs to be simple to follow or nothing will flow to the execution of the ideas. I am sure this was flushed out but i see this in our work with clients that anything beyond simple, small bites of solutions always get bogged down even prior to implementation..

  4. I agree with simplicity breeding from complexity. Im not sure if this is the trend in the approach to simplicity. Why? Because my boss’s follow this approach and they’re old! We need something new! Therefore looking forward to going through “simplicity” on ted 2010!

    Whenever im upto a project, when i start i have this notion: hey this should be simple coz i have a vague visual boundary of what my solution is going to feel like but to reach that feeling it takes ounces of research and head-hurting and eureka moments and extreme complexities to reach that simple thought which makes you laugh at yourself and say What the F***! It was right here all this while!

    Thanks Tim for your wonderful blog. You’re always an inspiration!

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