'Tis a Gift to be Simple

Feb 22, 2010, 9:50 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

George Whitesides, a chemist and the Flowers University Professor at Harvard, gave an elegant talk on simplicity at TED.  Whitesides asserted that simple things have four qualities:

  • They are predictable and reliable;

  • They are cheap;

  • They have a high value-to-cost ratio; and

  • They are stackable, that is you can combine them to build more complicated things.

The lowly transistor is a simple thing.  It’s also the building block of modern electronic devices.  Transistors enabled computers which enabled the internet which enabled, well, you get the picture. The point here is that simple things have emergent properties, that is, they enable complex systems to arise out of simple interactions. The next point is that you can never predict what results or complex systems will emerge when you stack a bunch of simple things together, snowflakes included.

What he’s talking about, clearly, are simple physical things.  But it led me to two thought experiments I’d like some help with…the first: identify two or three simple things that could be combined to create some novel product, service, or experience that would significantly improve health and health care. 

The second: can you deconstruct a complex aspect of our health care system and identify its most simple parts as a first step in re-thinking how things get done?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.