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Tim Harford on the Importance of Being Messy

Have the forces of tidiness marched too far? How can we foster creativity, resilience and responsiveness in an ever-more automated world?

Have the forces of tidiness marched too far? Would we all benefit from being a bit messy? That’s the big question that the FT’s star economist Tim Harford asked in this exclusive Intelligence Squared event. In Harford’s view, we need to be tidy up to a point. But in some areas of life, too much order makes things rigid, fragile and sterile.

Take the office, where research shows that people are more productive and creative if they are allowed to surround themselves with a bit of clutter. Or take Donald Trump. There’s no shortage of accounts that explain how this brash reality TV star, who began his campaign for the Republican nomination as a 150/1 no-hoper, ended up as President-elect of the United States. But Harford has his own theory. Trump’s rivals were tidy-minded career politicians, surrounded by lumbering professional messaging operations. Trump deployed a strategy of chaos and improvisation, confounding his enemies with his late-night tweets and moving on before they had even had time to react. This messy strategy, Harford argued, is one that has worked in many different contexts, from countless against-the-odds military victories, to Jeff Bezos’s phenomenal success with Amazon.

And then there’s automation. Computers may be ‘tidying up’ our lives in all sorts of ways, Harford argued, but the world still remains an unpredictable place. And the qualities we are going to value more than ever in our automated world – creativity, resilience and responsiveness – simply cannot be disentangled from the messy soil that produces them.



Kamal Ahmed

Journalist, author and former BBC News Editorial Director

Journalist who has been Editorial Director of BBC News and BBC Economics Editor. He has also held senior roles at The Telegraph Group, The Observer and The Guardian. He recently co-founded The News Movement, a start-up dedicated to tackling misinformation. He is the author of The Life and Times of a Very British Man.

Tim Harford

Senior columnist for the Financial Times and author of How To Make The World Add Up

Senior columnist for the Financial Times, where as 'The Undercover Economist', he reveals the economic ideas behind everyday experiences. He also presents the BBC radio series More or Less. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Forbes, New York magazine, the Washington Post, and The New York Times. His latest book is How to Make the World Add Up, and previous books include The Undercover Economist, The Logic of Life and Adapt.