Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland

Article excerpt

Credit: Rory Sutherland

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. …

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