Simple solutions are the most effective

Reaffirming the importance of simplicity in problem solving

It’s often simple innovations that change our daily lives.

In the tech industry, Apple shuffled the Walkman with the iPod, Blockbuster got crosscut with Netflix, and Uber stalled out the taxi. Now, when facing complex issues like meeting global emission targets, addressing income inequality, and ensuring food security, it’s simple innovations that will offer the most lucrative solutions. 

Unfortunately, not everyone likes simple. Pundits and executives are often susceptible to the idea that complex and costly solutions are required to solve complex problems.

This is far from the truth. Consider the now bankrupt Quebec-based mining company Nemaska Lithium Inc. They had a good idea on paper—construct a gigantic lithium mine to provide battery-grade lithium to service electric vehicle makers—which failed due to poor cost control.  

In reality, there are simpler solutions to meeting the lithium requirements of the rapidly growing electric vehicle industry. Calgary-based E3 Metals is currently developing a process that extracts lithium contained in the wastewater being generated and pumped back into the ground during the production of oil and gas. Such a process, admittedly still in the development stage, mitigates the extensive capital requirements and environmental costs of constructing a large mine while achieving a similar product quality. 

Others could be predisposed to the belief that technology provides a solution to even the simplest problems, even those which don’t require solving. In an era dominated by the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google) of the world, it’s hard to imagine problems that can’t be solved with the use of technology. 

Walmart recently attempted to improve supply chain efficiency by using robots equipped with scanners to monitor and maintain inventory levels. After rolling out robots in roughly 500 stores, Walmart discovered a simpler solution to their inventory management struggles: increasing the number of workers keeping track of inventory and having them walk the aisles more frequently. This was just as effective and much less disruptive than giant six-foot robots wheeling around the store.

In many ways, the shift toward e-commerce and online shopping have accelerated the demise of brick and mortar retailers. However, this ignores a reality, that, for many people, is the satisfaction of getting out and spending money in person. E-commerce and online shopping may be convenient, but they lack the real experience and human interaction of shopping in physical stores. Gloomy days are well-spent at the mall.

Curbside pick-up, initially an outcome of the pandemic, has become a simple innovation that combines the desire to actually go out and shop with the luxuries of online shopping: an infinite time to browse and no lengthy waiting lines. Retailers from Best Buy to Target have found success in curbside pick-up despite it seeming like an absurd idea. 

It’s possible that every simple solution seems like an absurd idea at first, especially in today’s increasingly complex world. Even as intricate supply chains move goods around the globe and elaborate clouds harness data to make programs accessible at the click of a button, the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west.

As we move on from the mindless days of quarantine to tackle complex problems of the future, we must remember that simplicity often provides remarkable solutions.

Michael Grotsky is a Queen’s graduate with a Master’s in Science.  


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