In Conversation with Tim Harford

The Academy recently welcomed English economist and journalist Tim Harford in conversation with Mishcon de Reya Executive Partner James Libson. Tim is the author of four books and writes his long running Financial Times column, The Undercover Economist, which reveals the economic ideas behind every day experiences.

“What really changes the world are very simple, often quite crude, inventions.”

Mishcon Academy:
In Conversation with Tim Harford
Senior Columnist, Financial Times

My name is Tim Harford, I’m a Senior Columnist for the Financial Times and I write about economics and statistics and psychology and how they change our world.

My most recent project is a BBC series and a book called Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy.  I’ve been exploring different inventions, different technologies and most importantly trying to learn lessons, not just say the diesel engine was important but what does the diesel engine teach us about the way the economy works.

One of the things I have learned working on these technologies is that we tend to make certain kinds of mistakes when we are thinking about the future, when we are thinking about how technology is going to reshape the world.  One of the mistakes we make is that we focus on the most spectacular cases so the things that would have looked like magic to our predecessors but very often it’s not the most spectacular thing, it’s like artificial intelligence, you know transgenic humans, it’s not that stuff that really changes the world so much as very simple, often quite crude inventions.

The other thing that we get wrong is that we assume that a technology is just going to drop into our lives, drop into our organisations, into our society and solve a particular problem.  The most famous example of this is in American manufacturing in the late nineteenth century.  The technology was there to electrify these factories and a few entrepreneurs did it and they got very disappointing results.  Electrification of course was introduced but not until the 1920s.  Now, that’s a generation so, why the delay?  Basically, everything about how you ran a factory needed to be changed in order to take advantage of certain capabilities the electric motors had and I think the same thing is true of inventions such as the computer, the internet, the smartphone, artificial intelligence – we need to re-organise how we work in order to take full advantage.