Messiness is generative

I’m going to write for a bit on innovation and design and research and a few other topics. It fits with some work I’m doing on innovation in complex learning organizations, but I won’t focus on the specifics much at all in these entries. These are just sketches of some ideas I’m enjoying reading about.

For instance, I’ve been reading about ethnographic studies of graphic designers. One item that struck a note is the idea that they work in teams, and the social nature of the design practice is a big part of what makes for success. The groups brief each other in open studios where people can hear and see conversations, often carried out in open conflict. The detritus of design is left scattered about the room – drawing boards, sketches, all kinds of papers. Nothing is hidden – things carved in foam are jumbled together on desks along with forgotten prototypes.

The point is that messiness is generative. Seeing a forgotten prototype for an early stage in a project may remind a designer of an important tradeoff made at that point; maybe it even helps get around a newly-discovered juncture.

What if research was carried out in the same environment? If we left our solo offices to sit in bullpens surrounded by other researchers and grad students? If we published (if only electronically, as a working paper on a server like the arXiv) every failed analysis? Every conjecture or hypothesis we considered worth extended consideration?

Certainly it would be messy. It would open us up to enhanced criticism. But it would also be generative.

New administrative datasets at ICPSR

33761 Analysis of Current Cold-Case Investigation Practices and Factors Associated with Successful Outcomes, 2008-2009

34681 Case Processing in the New York County District Attorney’s Office; 2010-2011


34903 Delivery and Evaluation of the 2012 International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) National Blended Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) Training [UNITED STATES]

34922 Investigating the Impact of In-car Communication on Law Enforcement Officer Patrol Performance in an Advanced Driving Simulator in Mississippi, 2011

Communicating science more effectively

Here’s the new report from the National Academy of Science (free PDF download).

Science and technology are embedded in virtually every aspect of modern life. As a result, people face an increasing need to integrate information from science with their personal values and other considerations as they make important life decisions about medical care, the safety of foods, what to do about climate change, and many other issues. Communicating science effectively, however, is a complex task and an acquired skill. Moreover, the approaches to communicating science that will be most effective for specific audiences and circumstances are not obvious. Fortunately, there is an expanding science base from diverse disciplines that can support science communicators in making these determinations.

Communicating Science Effectively offers a research agenda for science communicators and researchers seeking to apply this research and fill gaps in knowledge about how to communicate effectively about science, focusing in particular on issues that are contentious in the public sphere. To inform this research agenda, this publication identifies important influences – psychological, economic, political, social, cultural, and media-related – on how science related to such issues is understood, perceived, and used.

“Developing knowledge states: Technology and the enhancement of national statistical capacity”

New with Derrick Anderson of Arizona State University, this paper is now forthcoming at the Review of Policy Research. Here’s the abstract:

National statistical systems are enterprises tasked with collecting, validating and reporting societal attributes. These data serve many purposes–they allow governments to improve services, economic actors to traverse markets, and academics to assess social theories. National statistical systems vary in quality, especially in developing countries. This study examines determinants of national statistical capacity in developing countries, focusing on the impact of technological attainment. Just as technological progress helps to explain differences in economic growth, we argue that states with greater technological attainment have greater capacity for gathering and processing quality data. Analysis using panel methods shows a strong, statistically significant positive linear relationship between technological attainment and national statistical capacity.

Please feel free to contact me for a pre-publication version of the paper.

The demand for and supply of easy solutions

Tim Duy has published an interesting commentary on how economists should respond to the incoming Administration’s plans to intervene in the economy to save manufacturing jobs.  It takes on traditional economic thinking about trade, growth, and regional adjustments. It argues that frictions that resulted in losses – in jobs, livelihoods, in tears to local social fabric – are real, that they caused the outcome of this year’s election, and they can’t be ignored going forward.

Certainly.  What do we do, though, about the demand for and supply of easy solutions? We could re-run history and ask what could have been done 10, 20, or 50 years ago to limit these frictions. But what does that get us?

Today we can ask whether those at the edges of the modern economy can be saved. We have considered that question for many years, and the solutions remain unclear. For example, what about subsidizing the costs of relocation to areas where workers are in greater demand? Is that an easy, simple, and effective solution?

One problem with our thinking here is that we assume that the system wants to solve hard problems. Imagine that instead politicians want to solve easy problems for which they can easily claim credit. Or that in the case of hard problems they know that symbolic gestures are often effective enough given short time horizons.

In the current environment it’s more important that academics remain humble about the limits of our proposed solutions. That we recognize that we’re better at documenting problems than fixing them. That the demand for simple solutions is great. And that politicians are better at solving political problems than fixing long-run structural problems in the performance of the largest and most dynamic economy in the world. 

Is regulation scholarship in crisis?

Martin Lodge of CARR at the London School of Economics and Political Science has assembled a great group of papers on the question of whether regulation scholarship is in crisis given recent events in a number of countries. Gary Miller and I contributed a small piece that describes what our recent Cambridge University Press book Above Politics: Bureaucratic Discretion and Credible Commitment has to say on the matter. You can find the entire document online at this link.