Tim Harford on the Importance of Being Messy

Tuesday 6 December 2016, 7pm | PODCAST & VIDEO NOW ONLINE

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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.

Praise for Messy by Tim Harford:

‘Vindication at last! …a highly organized argument for chaos.’ – Time

‘[Messy] plays to Harford’s prodigious strengths: the ability to tell engrossing human stories, and the ability to use those stories to convey complex, statistical ideas that make your life better’– Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing

‘It’s a very very good book, full of wise counterintuitions and clever insights.’ – Brian Eno


Tim Harford

One of the UK’s most popular writers on economics. He is a senior columnist for the Financial Times and the presenter of Radio 4’s More or Less. He was the winner of the Bastiat Prize for economic journalism in 2006, and More or Less was commended for excellence in journalism by the Royal Statistical Society in 2010, 2011 and 2012. His latest book is Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World. Other books include The Undercover Economist, The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, The Logic of Life and Adapt.


Kamal Ahmed

Economics editor at the BBC. He was formerly the BBC’s business editor and political editor at The Observer, and Director of Communications at the Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2007 to 2009.



Speakers are subject to change.