Creativity, budgets, and Wi-Fi

“Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of the creative effort.”
–    Franklin D. Roosevelt –   

I recently did a presentation on creativity (a process by which something new and valuable is formed) for the Women in Leadership Conference. Why creativity? I believe that inspiring innovative and creative ideas is the hallmark of a good leader and a good lawyer (I knew absolutely nothing about the other suggested topics).

My first efforts at creative thinking in the law context was when I was a student starting at the firm having completed my first year of law school. I was asked to research a somewhat complicated fact situation and come up with “creative” arguments to boost our client’s defence to a claim. I was directed to engage in a “first principles” analysis. The problem was that I had absolutely no idea what that meant.

I’ve since learned that “first principles thinking” is “a mode of inquiry that relentlessly pursues the foundations of a problem.” Elon Musk, the world-changing entrepreneur behind SpaceX, PayPal, and Tesla Motors, also believes it is more important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. He said in an interview with

“[T]he normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. . . . We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done . . . or it is like what other people are doing. . . . ‘First principles’ is a physics way of looking at the world . . . what that really means is that you boil things down to the most fundamental truths . . . and then reason up from there . . . that takes a lot more mental energy. . . .

“Someone could — and people do — say battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be because that’s the way they have been in the past. . . . They would say it’s going to cost, historically it cost $600 KW/hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future. . . . So first principles . . . we say what are the material constituents of the batteries. What is the spot market value of the material constituents? It has carbon, nickel, aluminum, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. . . . break that down on a material basis, if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost. Oh geez, it’s $80 KW/hour. Clearly, you need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

Similarly, questions such as “why is our business/firm doing X” should not be answered only with “because that is what business/firm Y is doing.”

The Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government didn’t engage in a lot of innovative thinking with its budget released in April — unless you consider the introduction of a new, “temporary deficit reduction levy,” a tax on books, and the closure of public libraries creative. The levy, described by local celebrities as a “cover charge” for the privilege of calling NL home, ranges from $300 to $900 depending on your income.

Although, I don’t think any amount of creative thinking could solve the province’s fiscal problems. With a net debt expected to be nearly $14.7 billion this fiscal year, and a budget that still has (even with significant tax increases to the tune of $882 million annually) a $1.83-million deficit, drastic action was not only warranted but necessary.

While the April budget largely dealt with revenue, the anticipated September “mini budget” will hopefully deal with expenditures. The province currently has a provincial public service of some 46,000 people (the entire population is about 500,000). In NL, public employment as a share of total employment is an outstanding 30.9 per cent. The size of the provincial public service doubled since 2004 (which occurred under the previous administration).

In terms of evaluating what can be cut, I hope the provincial government does some “first principles” thinking. Specifically, government should be evaluating what core services it should provide.

I, for one, would rather see core functions like education funded in accordance with national standards and best practices with extraneous programs (programs not tied to core government lines of business) eliminated. This would be much more effective than some sort of broad-based 30-per-cent cut to everything.

The latter approach means that everything government does becomes “bare bones” (and likely are not able to fulfil their mandate in any event) and programs/services that were already lean to begin with get punished. At the moment, the amount of funding going to education is shamefully the same as the cost of servicing the debt.

If you, or the NL government, are looking to be inspired in your efforts to find a creative solution to a problem, I would suggest consulting with Andrew Barr who writes for CBC’s Punchline (CBC’s online comedy site). The piece “Passive aggressive man renames WiFi network,” describes a “Tim O’Reilly” in Edmonton, Alta. who has a problem with noisy neighbours. To address the problem, he continually renames his WiFi network to things he heard the neighbours shout, such as “Don’t Stop Until We’ve Ruined All The Drapes”; “Take Me In The Shower ’Cause It’s Bad For The Environment”; and “The Pterodactyl Costume Isn’t Working.” Now that’s creative.

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