Over the past three decades, John List has studied everything from what influences charitable giving, to the percentage of people who tip their Uber driver, to why men tend to earn higher salaries. higher than women for comparable work.
While he found answers to these questions, he also learned another important lesson: most people will never see the results of his research because they are largely written in what he calls “thrifty”. “, a jargon spoken and understood only by economists.
Still, List thinks his work on the theme of scaling — growing a business, program, or idea while ensuring it remains successful and sustainable — is too important not to reach the masses.
Indeed, when innovative companies succeed, they improve our lives and strengthen our economy. When governments implement good policies and programs, they serve all citizens and often lower our taxes. When a nonprofit helps fill the gaps in one community, it can often help lift other communities.
As List says, “When great ideas evolve, we all win.”
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To help people and organizations know what kinds of ideas will and won’t scale, List wrote a plain language book, “The Voltage Effect,” to help explain the do’s and don’ts. At a CivicCon event in Pensacola on Sunday night, he discussed some key points from the book.
List knows from experience that just because an idea works doesn’t mean it will work at scale.
List has held various consulting positions, including at large corporations such as Uber and Walmart, schools and nonprofits, and even in the administration of former President George W. Bush. He is the Kenneth C. Griffin Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, and one of his projects was to help establish a preschool for children in Chicago Heights, an impoverished suburb of Chicago.
The program, launched in 2010, focused on parent involvement and used a hand-picked curriculum with a track record of success.
By 2014, students at the school had made considerable progress in test scores. List, thrilled with the results, reached out to every policy maker he knew in hopes of replicating the program across the city, the country and the world.
But people he spoke to told him the program wouldn’t work, not on a large scale. And upon reflection, he realized they were right. To run the program, he had used 30 great teachers. To scale the program to serve all of Chicago, it would need 30,000 excellent teachers, a number that just wasn’t realistic.
The incident helped set List on the path to studying the science behind scaling. There’s a thrifty explanation of how it all works, but to simplify it List adapted the opening line from Leo Tolstoy’s book “Anna Karenina”. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. »
List told the CivicCon audience, “Evolutionary ideas are all alike. Every non-scalable idea is non-scalable in its own way, but there are five main reasons, what I call the five vital signs, why ideas don’t. don’t fit.”
The first vital sign is the “false positive,” meaning that an idea initially looks promising, but ultimately turns out to be either a fluke or a failure. The second mistake is to overestimate the size of an audience for a given idea.
The third vital sign is the inability to judge whether an idea is successful because of the “chef” or the “ingredients.” Essentially, it’s about whether there is a single person or factor that makes an idea work in a certain place, or whether it can be replicated anywhere with anyone.
The fourth factor asks whether the idea creates unintended consequences, and the last is “supply-side economics”, or the economics of brass spikes as to whether expanding the idea is affordable. .
If you clear all five hurdles, your idea will evolve, according to List.
Along with scaling, List spoke generally about the current economic climate. He said that, from a national perspective, many economic factors seen in past recessions are not a problem right now.
As examples, he noted that the unemployment rate is falling; employers are posting more job openings; wages are rising, if only nominally; and underemployment rates — people working part-time because they can’t find full-time jobs — have “increased a bit, but they’re still lower than pre-COVID numbers,” he said. List.
“The bottom line here as a nation, the job market doesn’t show that we’re in a recession,” List said. “Remember, a recession is a deep and broad stagnation in growth. That doesn’t seem to be happening in the labor market, and I can’t imagine the labor market will enter troubled waters anytime soon.”
Yet, he said, there are many people struggling at the community level because of inflation. Costs for fuel, food, rent and other expenses leave many families with little money to spare.
“Often inflation is discriminatory, and it discriminates against groups that need help the most,” he said.
List ended his presentation by recommending that Pensacola and other small towns invest their resources in entrepreneurs and early childhood learning. He noted that entrepreneurs tend to innovate close to where they are raised, which often means bringing jobs and opportunities to their hometown.
He said it is important to invest in children because often parents cannot do it alone.
“There are so many opportunity gaps all around – all over here, all over Chicago – that if I had a basket of money, I would start there, because every child deserves the same opportunity as another child,” said he declared. “They’re not getting it right now.”
He acknowledged that the cost of housing is a major issue for many families in the region, but noted that this is a sign that is, in many ways, positive.
“A lot of people want to live here. It’s a good problem to have. It’s the demand side of the equation, but the problem is that the demand side is so much bigger than the current supply,” List said. . “So what are you going to do? You don’t want to make life here any less attractive. Everyone loves living here, it’s a great community. … That’s good news. But the bad news is that you want to make sure everyone has a chance to live in affordable housing.”
The upcoming CivicCon event will focus specifically on affordable housing and gentrification and will feature Shane Phillips, author of “The Affordable City”.
Phillips is the Housing Initiative Project Manager for the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA and speaks nationwide on the topic of affordable and stable housing.
His book offers a three-part solution to more affordable rents and house prices: supply, stability and subsidies.
His free, open-to-all CivicCon presentation will take place from 6-7:30 p.m. August 29 at the REX Theater in Pensacola. To register, search “CivicCon” on eventbrite.com.
CivicCon is a partnership between the News Journal and the Studer Community Institute to empower communities to become better places to live, grow, work and invest through smart planning and civic conversations.
For more information, visit pnj.com/civiccon.