(c) FreeFoto.comTinkering gets a bad rap and I am making it my personal mission to rehabilitate the term. I keep an eye out for articles about tinkering and it is dismaying to see tinkerers getting the same raw deal as “hackers”.  The original terms have been corrupted by the the ill-informed.

Superficial, childish and possibly dangerous?

Negative uses of the word tinkering tend to fall into two camps. The first camp sees tinkering as a childish pastime that is possibly dangerous.  Take this article by Larry Downes on the U.S. Protect IP Act of 2011 in which he says:

The real danger is that by tinkering desperately with the fundamental machinery of both the Internet and the legal system, the unintended consequences that result could prove catastrophic.

The implication is that tinkerers are like little children playing with things they don’t understand are are likely to break.

The second camp sees tinkering not so much as bad but as insufficient, as a kind of playing around at the edges of something, trying ineffectually to fix it, rather than boldly thinking about building a brand new something. Internet economy guru, Don Tapscott takes this perspective. In his book of last year,  Macrowikieconomics, he argues that tinkering is insufficient. He says,

“But among other things, we need to rethink transportation, adopt new manufacturing and shipping practices, pull off a dramatic shift toward greener products and lifestyles, and retool our energy system, all while devoting enormous intellectual and financial resources to protecting the world’s most vulnerable peoples and locations from the effects of rising sea levels and other consequences. Surely a little bit of political tinkering will be insufficient to achieve all of this.”

He goes on to say

“Most world leaders – indeed, most leaders of business and government anywhere – harbour the same old tired set of assumptions about how to solve the world’s problems. And more often than not, they seem focused on tinkering with old models rather than moving to something new and viable. Consider the dysfunctional financial services industry. Conventional policy wisdom demands more regulation over financial markets. But no one stops to ask whether the current models of regulatory oversight and enforcement are truly equipped for the job.”

Tapscott is not alone.  Take this comment from Daniel Veniez on the Canadian health system:

We have underinvested in people, technology, research, innovation and public health. We must modernize our health-care system, including the Canada Health Act, and this will require more than tinkering.

Or this from David Cunliffe on the New Zealand budget:

If, however, the Budget is simply more of the same tinkering from John Key, and if it pins all our economic hopes on rose-tinted forecasts of economic growth, while refusing to specify where within each department or service cuts will be made, it will not be a success.

All of them are arguing in their cases that structural issues at stake that mere tinkering with existing models will not address.  So there you have it. Superficial, childish and possibly dangerous.

What is a tinker?

Before unpacking the above, it is worth taking a step back in history to understand where the word tinker came from.  A tinker was someone who moved from town to town earning an income by fixing broken metal things, pots, pans, etc. Not perhaps a pillar of society, in fact tinkers didn’t get much respect back then either, but they played an essential if unglamorous role, someone who knew how to fix things. And how did they fix things? The modern connotation of the word tinker would have you believe that a tinker would fix a broken utensil by casually rapping away at it with a overweight hammer. That sort of tinker would probably not have lasted very long.

A successful tinker, given the modest tools he might have in his possession, would require a deep knowledge of metals and their properties and how they interacted with each other. He might not know the atomic structure of copper but he would have a profound sense of its malleability, durability, melting point, and how it might be combined with other metals. He would understand how pots are made and how to take them apart without breaking them. Consequently, he would be in a position to improve a badly made pot. Or he might be able to take his deep knowledge of metals and utensils and craft new utensils.

Beware of enterprises requiring new clothes

The notion that we need to “re-think” things and create new models and that gently experimenting with things is bad is a dangerous meme.  If we are asking leaders to take bolder steps to implement change, what confidence do we have that they know the answer to the problems they are trying to solve?  Actually we already KNOW that they don’t know. Economies are complex adaptive systems that consistently defy prediction.

Even the notion of models is a largely a case of retrospective coherence. We use models to explain things but the generally model comes AFTER things have changed not before. Of course there are exceptions to that, visions of how the world ought to be like the Communist Manifesto but history has had something to say about the viability of that approach. Retrospective coherence and the models we build from it is how we make sense of the world and how we spread good ideas but it is not how innovation and change comes about.

So really it is the kind of sweeping change that Mr. Tapscott proposes that is dangerous, that could have catastrophic repercussions that might take a generation of more to repaid.  A great example of this is California’s wholesale importation of  direct democracy from Switzerland, the disastrous consequences of which may actually be undoable.  That is exactly the kind of bold idea that Mr. Tapscott is proposing.

That makes me sound quite conservative but I am actually proposing something radical.  A million small changes.  We need to unleash the power to do many small experiments in our social, economic, political and regulatory systems and we need the means to learn from successes and failures and nurture those small successes.

The modern Tinkerer

What we need is to give people with deep local knowledge the freedom to experiment with systems.  And why am I on about this now?  It’s not just the bold punditry of Don Tapscott that has me up in arms.  More locally, Vodacom CEO Pieter Uys has proposed an open access network for rural access, an idea which in principle sounds great.  Infrastructure sharing is overdue in South Africa, however, the devil is in the details.  He argues that ICASA shouldn’t experiment with untested models.

“It should develop a plan with input from regulators in the rest of the world, from suppliers and other experts, to say what is the best for SA in the long term based on the country’s goals.”

So what confidence do we have that we will get it right this time?  We need adaptive policies that open up freedom for innovation and more importantly allow us to recover gracefully from mistakes.  Our previous record with importing “tested” regulatory models from the rest of the world is hardly a success story.  We are saddled with a rich-world regulatory environment that demands a strong, well-trained and well-resourced regulator to implement.

I fear that Mr. Uys’  idea of an ‘open access’ is one where Vodacom, MTN, Cell C, and Telkom share the cost of rural infrastructure and extend their cosy and largely uncompetitive club into rural areas.  And if this turns out to be true, how will we recover from it?  If we have learned one thing from South African telcos it is that once their interests are entrenched they extremely difficult to change.  We need a system that encourages flexible market-based innovation in service delivery.

An idea whose time has come

This notion that we more of an evolutionary approach to change is not my own.  It has been championed by many distinguished writers from Nassim Nicholas Taleb to Eric Beinhocker.  More recently, author Peter Sims makes the case for this in his book Little Bets. He says:

“Little bets are a way to explore and develop new possibilities. Specifically, a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea. Chris Rock develops new comedy routines by making little bets with small audiences; Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos makes small bets to identify opportunities in new markets like cloud computing. Little bets are at the center of an approach to get to the right idea without getting stymied by perfectionism, risk-aversion, or excessive planning.”

Tim Harford of Undercover Economist fame, makes a similar case in his new book Adapt.  He argues that

“today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinions; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt—improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up rather than the top down, and take baby steps rather than great leaps forward.”

So, please let’s not have another “best practice” that hasn’t actually yet stood the test of time, rolled out wholesale in South Africa.  Let’s create an environment where Pieter Uys can experiment with his model but allow others to flourish as well.  What about community-owned towers where communities invite service providers to bid to offer services on their infrastructure.  Would that work?  Maybe.  Let’s have a small experiment to find out. And Television White Spaces spectrum?  One might argue that this is simply another untested idea being imported into South Africa.  That’s a fair call but the cost of failure is minuscule.  If TV White Spaces spectrum fails, we won’t even have had to re-allocate any spectrum as it is designed for secondary, serendipitous use.   On the other hand, give all the 700-800 megahertz spectrum to the incumbents and that will take a generation or more to fix.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data