We make things more and more complex, while the solution often lies in simplification

October, 2022

We have a natural tendency to make things more and more complex, but the solution often lies in simplifying. Innovation expert Simone van Neerven explains how this works with examples of cows and electric cars.

Gluten allergy

More and more people have a gluten allergy or intolerance. As a result, they can no longer eat products such as bread and breakfast cereals. The gluten-free products market is booming and has grown to a multi-billion market with a yearly growth of almost 10%. Also, countless medicines and remedies have been invented.

Farmer Jan de Vries from the small Frisian town of Harich was fascinated by this. He learned that the gluten problem is caused by several artificial interventions in the bread-baking process. Also, today almost all grain has been modified to serve the industrial way of farming. Farmer Jan searched for an ancient, naturally pure type of grain and started experimenting with it. His bread turns out to be so tasty that no additives are needed and it can be eaten by people who are sensitive to gluten.

Complexification is deeply rooted in humans

When engineer Leidy Klotz and his 2.5-year-old son were playing with Lego and a brick was missing to make the legs of a bridge the same height, he went looking for the missing brick. In the meantime, his son solved the problem simply by removing a brick from the longer leg.

This got Klotz thinking and he noticed that minimalist designs, in which elements are removed from an existing model, were uncommon. He started researching this at the University of Virginia, and he discovered that people have a natural preference for complicating things rather than simplifying them. When faced with a problem, people tend to select solutions that involve adding new elements rather than taking existing components away.

There is no clear explanation yet as to why people do this. Possibly it has to do with another human heuristic: our aversion to loss, where we feel the pain of loss twice as intense as the pleasure of gain.

Symptom control

Many complexification examples can also be found in agriculture. Methane is a by-product of the natural digestion process of grazers such as cows. The more difficult the animal feed is to digest, the more methane is released. DSM is investing millions of euros in the development of an animal feed additive to significantly reduce the methane emissions of cows. But if cows eat young grass and herbs, which are easy to digest, the methane emissions are automatically lower.

Another example is potty training for calves. A group of German and New Zealand scientists developed it to ensure that urine and feces are kept separate, resulting in significantly less harmful ammonia being released. But if you just let a cow graze outside, they will never urinate in the same place they poop.

Search for the root causes of problems

The more complex we make things, the more difficult it becomes to oversee the entire picture. The probability of errors increases, and most of the times usability decreases. The solution often lies in simplifying processes and products. Successful examples are the Google website, which has been kept extremely simple with only a search function field in the middle, and the Apple computer mouse, which has been designed in such a way that there are no visible buttons on it.

From the aviation industry, we learn that root cause analysis is a great way to get to the core of problems. If an incident takes place, there is always an in-depth investigation into the real causes of the problem. Solutions are only searched for after this careful analysis.

Always be alert

Another good example of this are electric cars. These help us towards a fossil-free world. At the same time, it also creates a new problem. An enormous and complex network of charging stations is needed.

The Dutch scaleup Lightyear, which has developed a solar-powered car, largely solves this problem by installing solar panels on top of the car. As a result, the car is directly and continuously supplied with energy so the car needs to be charged less often. And if you still do need to charge, you can just use the normal power sockets at home.

A healthy dose of courage

Going against the grain is never easy. It takes a lot of courage and wisdom to do that. Hundreds of years before Christ, the founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, said it succinctly: “To acquire knowledge, you have to add things every day. To gain wisdom, you take things away every day.”

This article has been translated from its original version, which was originally published in Dutch on MT/SPROUT in October, 2022.

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