What Do We Do With Frictions to make the World Better?

Photo by Pamela Heckel on Unsplash

I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that micro frictions should be one of the top priorities for society to tackle — a wicked problem whose time has come.

But what does that mean? What would a solution to the problem of micro frictions look like? I want to talk a little bit about what we think it might mean — and whether what it might actually mean is the same thing.

In the hugely influential article “Leverage Point”, Donella Matthews, one of the clearly exponents of systems thinking, argues that most people agree on what the key leverage points in a system might be, those points where concerted but relatively small or simple action will have the greatest impact on the overall system. Her keenest observation is that while this agreement exists, and is generally right, about what the leverage points are — the intuitive approach to those leverage points is almost always wrong. That is to say:

Most people know where to push if they want to change a system. But they push in the wrong direction. What systems thinking often shows is that the correct approach to leverage points is often the counter-intuitive one.

This is something that chimes with what I teach people about creativity. I might go even further and say:

If everyone agrees what the problem area is when it comes to bad outcomes, yet the outcomes persist, then either the wrong approach has been taken to those areas or the wrong areas have been identified.

Changing the area of focus or the direction of focus as the response to an intractable problem is pretty much my definition of creativity.

But let’s suppose Matthews is correct that we are right about the leverage point in this case — friction. What would a counter-intuitive response to the problem of friction be? That requires us to define two things

  • What the problem friction causes actually is;
  • What the intuitive response to it is.

So just what is the “problem of friction”? In short, as I have argued in pieces such as this one and this one, it is the disproportionate impact of seemingly insignificant levels of task complexity or difficulty (such as setting up a password protected account in order to purchase something, or clicking through multiple screens when navigating to where you want to get to on a website, or having to change plans for a meeting) on those people with fewest resources. These are often disabled people, those stretched by unsupported caring duties, or those on the wrong end of bandwidth scarcity as a result of economic or other hardship.

This is a problem *for those people*. But it is a much wider societal problem. Not just because it limits the number of people who can give their full attention to society’s most pressing problems. But because these are precisely the people outside of the power structures from which so many of those problems emerged. And so they are precisely the people we most need to centre in the search for a solution.

So if the problem of friction is defined as the systematic and targeted removal from public discourse of those we most need at its centre, what is the intuitive way to push at the problem?

The most obvious intuitive solution is to find ways to remove the frictions that disabled people and others face — to seek to find a way, that is, to avoid having to spend those scarce and valuable resources on unnecessary frictions.

But what if that’s not the answer? (I’m not saying that it isn’t — rather that Matthews’ warning suggests that the very fact that it seems so obviously to be the answer means we should question it).What would counter-intuitive answers look like?

Increasing friction

This might not be as counter-intuitive as it sounds. Take the research that shows presenting information in harder to read fonts leads to greater understanding. This is essentially the deep practice principle — that we learn best at the edge of our capability.

That’s sort of what we might mean by increasing friction for everybody — those people who usually find tasks “easy” might be forced into engaging with them, and as a result might become more inventive, just as many disabled people have had to find incredibly inventive adaptations just in order to function in the world. That in itself might increase the innovation potential available to society.

But we might also mean something else. We might mean that increasing friction for those who aren’t disabled, for example, narrows the gap between them and disabled people. This is similar to what happened at the start of the pandemic when many people got a small taste of how disabled people live permanently — unable to leave their home, unable to participate in social events, struggling to access basic needs, uncertain about everything. The result is that instead of having vast reserves of energy to spare that enable them to fill every available position and always be first in line when key responsibilities are handed out, non-disabled people might also have less resource available to give them automatic advantages. And this might work to create a more even filling of vital positions — again leading to greater innovative potential where it matters.

Focus on decreasing friction further for those who already find things easier.

The rationale for this might focus on the scarcity principle. The more people have to struggle to secure their own vulnerable position, the more defensive they will be of that position, and the less bandwidth they will have to create more inclusive conditions.

Focusing on more ease of basic tasks for the majority might lead to more general openness and inclusivity, which would create the positions for more focus on inclusive practices, more resources available for research with more promising but less certain outcomes, and a host of other things that lead to more innovative potential more widely available.

These two approaches feel like opposites. But positioning them also in relation to the most intuitive approach — lessening friction for those currently most disadvantaged by it — is a good reminder that approaches are often not binary. That there is rarely a single axis for decision making, and that things are much more likely to take place in many dimensions.

I’m not convinced by either of these counter-intuitive approaches. But that’s part of the point of the exercise — not being convinced in one’s head isn’t adequate reason not to consider options.

The point is rather this. For those of us who agree that friction should be one of the top priorities for any society wanting to tackle its most wicked problems, that agreement should only be the starting point. It requires a further step to decide how to rise to that challenge — one that may involve challenging some of one’s most basic assumptions, and putting oneself in what feels like an uncomfortable position. And those uncomfortable positions really are the place where the best solutions emerge.

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Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.