MAYBE I didn’t take enough holidays. But by the end of last year, there was something I regularly encountered in my job that had really started to grate. So I banked the angst, ready for Ross Gittins to go on leave and for space to open to air a rant about it.
Gittins is at the beach, and my rant is about a phrase, or variations of the phrase.
At news conferences, or on the phone, or while sitting for a coffee, numerous people would offer some version of the words: ”We’ve got to be smarter.”
How do you solve problem A? ”Let’s be smarter about the way we do things.”
What’s the answer to intractable dilemma B? ”Got to work smarter, not harder.”
The situation demands we try to achieve more of C but we have less of D to do so: ”Need to be smarter about stuff.”
In the language of the day, let’s ”unpack” what these phrases are saying.
For a start, anybody offering the idea that the solution to a problem requires superior use of intellect than had previously been applied to that same problem must assume they contain within themselves the capacity to exert that superior intellect.
The other side of this assumption is they must also believe the person or people who had previously been grappling with the problem did not have their same capacity for critical thought.
You can be smarter only if someone else is dumber.
Perhaps there is an evolutionary basis for this assumption. Perhaps new generations emerge layered with extra intelligence. Maybe I am smarter than my father by the mere virtue of being his son.
But I don’t think Darwin went this far and I don’t think people who talk about ”doing things smarter” are really claiming they are smarter because they are newer.
What the smarter people probably mean is that those who had gone before them had been conditioned to operate in a particular way and that way no longer suited the demands and opportunities of the modern world.
New ways better fit the times. Those solutions might not be ”smarter” in an intellectual sense, but they are probably ”fresher” in terms of experience and perspective.
In this sense, therefore, I can claim to offer smarter ideas than my father because I can tackle problems from angles that his outlook did not allow him to.
This assumption might be generationally arrogant. But it can hold in circumstances.
If my father was a general before the First World War, he might think cavalry charges were a good idea. I would know horses get shot by machineguns.
The trouble is that in my experience, the majority of people claiming to offer smarter solutions to difficult problems are better at making the claim than solving the problem.
I spend my days as a transport reporter for Fairfax Media. This means I am confronted daily with two perpetually crisis-ridden enterprises: the modern media industry and the flailing transport systems of big Australian cities.
By crisis-ridden, I mean media companies do not make as much money as they used to and thus need to spend less money than they did.
This is a worldwide thing. But read an article or listen to a radio program about the underwater economics of modern media and, sure enough, there will be plenty of experts asserting media companies are struggling because they’re not doing enough of X.
”Of course newspapers are not making money because they have failed to appreciate business true-ism Y. They can’t keep ignoring the realities – they need to be smarter.”
But no one understands their plight more than the guy whose head is under water.
It is just that no one, no one, in the world has been able to work out how to maintain large news rooms with plenty of journalists and designers and artists, now that companies and individuals wanting to advertise their products or sell their cars or houses or trombones have – thanks to the internet – a panoply of options through which to do so and are not forced to shell out the same high rates to media companies that were being charged a decade or so ago.
Some media executives naturally do a better job than others. But the whole lot is under pressure, not because they are not ”smart”, but because the world has changed, and probably for the better.
So media companies will try different things, some of which will work and some of which won’t. And in the meantime they will become smaller, because they are not making as much money.
That might be rational, but it is not smarter. It is smaller. The ”smart” solution remains a way off, if it lies anywhere, and it is much easier to assert its necessity than to pluck it into existence.
The media rant relates to transport only inasmuch as the transport industry seems also to attract plenty of gurus with quick-fix and smart solutions to complex problems.
But again, in my experience, the ”smartness” of a solution to a transport problem is often inversely related to the level of detail behind it and the amount of thought put into it.
In New South Wales, for instance, despite all the talk of a new approach, the main transport initiatives the Coalition government is embarking on are much the same as the former government kept proposing, with all their potential benefits and flaws. The ideas are no more inventive, because the problems and constraints remain the same.
The appeal of the next smart solution has spawned an industry of innovation evangelists and Svengalis of the next-new-thing.
That industry, in turn, has generated its iconoclastic reaction, as analysts and writers pick apart the myth of the innovator. There’s some good reading there.
There are, of course, real innovators in the world. But I suspect the ones with genuine ideas spend their time testing and trying those ideas, not talking in vague terms about the need for something new or smarter, or extolling the generic virtues of innovation.
Ross Gittins is on leave.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.