Archives for innovation



What Do You Want to Know About Fighting Poverty With Cash Payments?

If you happen to be in New York on Mon., Nov. 11, you might want to come see Richard Thaler and Dean Karlan talk about “using evidence and behavioral economics to fight poverty.” The event (info here) is run by the Innovations for Poverty Action, of which Karlan is president. I will moderate the Thaler-Karlan discussion — which means I get to ask them any questions I want about whether and why it is a good idea to fight poverty by giving cash directly to poor people rather than the traditional means of directing aid toward institutions and hoping that it trickles down fruitfully. (There are, of course, more options than just those two.)

In our recent podcast called “Would a Big Bucket of Cash Really Change Your Life?,” we looked at whether a windfall helps a family across the generations. The short answer, at least in the case of the 19th-century land lottery that we discussed: no. Read More »



The Middle of Everywhere: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

You know how there are people who get talked about a lot and then there are people who actually do a lot?

It strikes me that the same could be said of cities. And I’d put Chicago near the top of any list of cities that have done a lot. From an East Coast view, or West, it can appear that Chicago is the middle of nowhere. In this week’s podcast, we make the argument that Chicago is, in fact, the middle of everywhere. (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode features Thomas Dyja, the author of several books, most recently The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. He talks about 10 things that Chicago gave the world, some of them surprising and some just forgotten. Dyja isn’t arguing that Chicago is still in its heyday — it is almost certainly not — but he make a persuasive case that it is underappreciated on many dimensions, and that the world would be a very different place if Chicago hadn’t been so busy being Chicago. Read More »



Why Are There Cronut Scalpers?

Between the din of the cicadas appearing up and down the East Coast and the media frenzy over the government’s mass surveillance programs, you might not have heard much about New Yorkers’ real obsession at the moment: the “cronut.” A cross between a croissant and a donut, the cronut is the invention of baker Dominique Ansel, who operates out of a shop in SoHo. Cronuts are so popular that lines form at 6 a.m. — 2 hours before the shop opens — and Ansel runs out within minutes. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet (and Craigslist) there is even a cronut black market, with unauthorized cronut scalpers charging up to $40 apiece for home delivery (a mark up of 700%). And of course there are cronut knockoffs appearing all over the world. Ansel has even trademarked the name “cronut.”

Which brings up two questions:

1. Why did it take so long for someone to invent a croissant-donut mash-up? 
2. And, perhaps more importantly for those who want to eat them, why do we see a cronut shortage? The genius of capitalism is that it matches supply with demand – and if there’s a lot of demand for cronuts, supply should quickly expand. Especially here. Cronuts aren’t especially hard to make, don’t require expensive equipment, and are currently unregulated (although give Mayor Bloomberg time.) Read More »



Adventures in Ideas: Crowd Control — an Interview With Shaun Abrahamson

I recently read an engaging book on the use of crowds and crowd-based intelligence for generating innovation. Shaun Abrahamson is one of the authors of Crowdstorm: The Future of Innovation, Ideas, and Problem Solving.

I have to admit that I am not a big believer in leveraging crowds for change—I think there is a fetish of the role that masses play in idea formation. I do believe that intelligence is distributed, but I’m an old-fashioned proponent of formal organizations.

But after reading Shaun’s book, I changed some of my stubborn views. The book is a systematic (and critical) appraisal of the role that crowds can play in diverse organizational and personal settings. I think Freakonomics readers might benefit from hearing Shaun’s insights.

Q. Aristotle said that every new idea builds on something earlier by hiding/transforming it. What’s old and what’s “new” in crowdstorming? 

A. The main newness is the identification of patterns for finding and evaluating ideas. More specifically the identification of patterns that seem to deliver good or better results than if we were to working with smaller groups of people.  Read More »



How Shale Gas Can Benefit Us and the Environment

It took less than an hour for Apple to sell out the initial supply of its new iPhone 5. It’s thinner, lighter, faster, brighter, taller than its predecessors, and yet it costs the same. That’s called progress.

Elsewhere, progress is met by protest rather than praise.

A suite of technologies has brought vast supplies of previously unrecoverable shale gas within reach of humans, dramatically expanding natural gas reserves in the U.S. and around the world. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have produced a fuel that can at once promote a cooler planet and an expanded economy, essentially eliminating the tradeoff between climate change mitigation and the pursuit of other public projects and, perhaps, economic growth. But unlike the iPhone, the productivity gain embodied in shale gas technologies doesn’t attract a cult following and its benefits get obscured.  Read More »



The Birth of the “Chicken Offset”

The battle over gay rights and the Southern fast food chain Chick-fil-A has dominated the news in the last couple of weeks. 

Kiss-ins, boycotts, and counterprotests have all ensued. But maybe the most clever response to the anti-gay marriage comments is the “chicken offset,” the brainchild of  a lawyer, political operative, and all-around character named Ted Frank (disclosure: one of us – Sprigman – went to law school with Ted).

These build on the existing idea of “carbon offsets,” which started out as a way to bring market flexibility to CO2 emissions caps. If a polluter exceeds a cap, it can purchase an offset. The money that the polluter pays for the offsets supports projects that reduce CO2 emissions – say, the construction of a wind farm. The new, green projects “offset” the bad emissions. 

Today, firms like Brighter Planet offer offsets that consumers can voluntarily purchase to balance out the carbon output of their flying, their houses, their weddings, and even their pets (did you know that the average housecat has a carbon pawprint of over 0.5 ton – mostly from production and transport of cat food?).

Ted’s stroke of inspiration was to tweak the concept of the offset and apply it to chicken sandwiches.  As he explains on his new website, chickenoffsets.com, he loves Chick-fil-A sandwiches, but doesn’t want his love to come at the expense of his gay friends.  And so every time you give in to that chicken sandwich jones, Ted will sell you an offset for $1.  He promises that he’ll give at least 90% of that dollar to pro-gay rights groups. Which is much more than anti-gay groups are going to make on your lunch at Chick-fil-A. Read More »



Thirty-Two Innovations That Will “Change Your Tomorrow”

The New York Times Magazine‘s “Innovations” issue is a good read. Of the 32 innovations listed, the most interesting to me were Nos. 14, 15, and 16. The appeal of the middle, anyone? Or maybe I’m just a fan of Catherine Rampell, who wrote two of those three.

Here they are:

The Shutup Gun When you aim the SpeechJammer at someone, it records that person’s voice and plays it back to him with a delay of a few hundred milliseconds. This seems to gum up the brain’s cognitive processes — a phenomenon known as delayed auditory feedback — and can painlessly render the person unable to speak.

Kazutaka Kurihara, one of the SpeechJammer’s creators, sees it as a tool to prevent loudmouths from overtaking meetings and public forums, and he’d like to miniaturize his invention so that it can be built into cellphones. “It’s different from conventional weapons such as samurai swords,” Kurihara says. “We hope it will build a more peaceful world.” — Catherine Rampell



The X-Prize Comes to the Nursing Home

We once put out a podcast called “Reading, Rockets, and ‘Rithmetic,” about how competition and prizes help drive innovation. Among the examples were the federal education program Race to the Top; Google’s “20 percent time” policy; and the X-Prize Foundation, whose founder and chairman, Peter Diamandis, remains one of my favorite radio guests ever, full of vigor and wisdom and optimism. (We’ll soon be featuring a Q&A on this blog with Diamandis and Steven Kotler, coauthors of the new book Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.)

I’m happy to report that I am hardly the only person to be inspired by Diamandis. We recently got the following e-mail from David Sedgwick, an executive with a nursing-home company called the Ensign Group. Read More »