Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist and the presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less, which won the Royal Statistical Society’s 2010 award for statistical excellence in broadcast journalism. He is also the author of several books, including The Undercover Economist. His latest is Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

Cory Doctorow: First of all, some context — what’s the thesis of Adapt, and how does it refine, extend or improve upon The Undercover Economist?

Tim Harford: The Undercover Economist was a book about the economic principles behind everyday life, from the way Starbucks prices drinks to the rise of China. Adapt isn’t primarily an economics book at all — it’s a book about how complex problems are solved. (If ideas from economics help, great. But sometimes they don’t.)

That said, the two books start from a very similar place: describing the amazing complexity of the economy that produces the everyday objects which surround us. In Undercover it was a cappuccino, and in Adapt I describe a memorable project in which a student called Thomas Thwaites attempts to build a simple toaster from scratch. But in Adapt this complexity isn’t just a cause for a “wow, cool” moment — it’s a headache, because it’s a measure of the obstacles facing anyone who wants to solve problems in this very intricate, interconnected world.

Ultimately Adapt argues that the only way forward is experimentation, which can either be formal or ad hoc. Whether we’re talking about poverty in Nigeria or innovation in Boston, solutions tend to evolve rather than be designed in some burst of awesome genius. And then the question is — what do we need to encourage those experiments?


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