When we think of solving big problems, especially through government, our minds tend to envision huge sums of money. After all, in today's dollars the cost of the Apollo moon-landing program would be more than $170 billion. But today's solutions to even the most intractable problems often don't require the massive spending and heavy infrastructure so associated with the industrial age. Truly innovative solutions can deliver results at a fraction of the cost.
A hallmark of the information age is that traditional trade-offs dissolve. We no longer always must pay higher costs to get superior results. In fact, superior solutions may emerge for little or no cost, although along the way we may have to relinquish old models, traditional jobs and even long-trusted institutions.
A few key strategies have a track record of eliminating the trade-offs between dollar investment and social returns. Lightweight solutions such the following can yield enormous savings over traditional, centrally organized efforts:
• Leveraging the Internet for distribution of information.
• Using tools such as peer-to-peer networks to find crowdsourced solutions.
• Encouraging business-model innovation.
• Helping citizens identify their own needs -- something they'll do far more assiduously than any caseworker.
• Involving individuals and communities in addressing their own challenges.
Today, many governments utilize these strategies, but typically only as pilot projects or fringe initiatives far removed from their central "business." In many cases, that's because they don't trust those they consider outsiders to deliver important public services. But why add complexity if an elegant solution can reach the desired outcome with less intervention? Lightweight solutions employ the lightest-touch approach to problem-solving, almost certainly at lower cost.
Take ride-sharing, for example. While traffic gridlock chokes most of the world's largest cities, our analysis suggests that shifting only about 15 percent of drive-alones to car-sharing or ride-sharing could save 757 million commuter-hours and about $21 billion in congestion costs annually. To achieve this savings through traditional means would require many billions of dollars of infrastructure investment. But ride-sharing apps such as Lyft, Avego, Zimride and Reward Rides could engage the millions of commuters needed to generate a sizable impact at a tiny fraction of that cost.
Higher education stands to reap significant savings from low-cost information-sharing capabilities enabled by the Web. Since 1983, the cost of a university education per student has risen at almost five times the rate of inflation. But online learning strategies such as Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) can slash costs dramatically and, for poor people in the developing world, open up unimaginable educational opportunities. Innovative education solutions that address a learning challenge can readily be scaled to far wider populations or tweaked to tackle entirely different challenges. Online approaches that can help a student learn programming in Bangladesh, for example, can be modified to help companies significantly boost the technical proficiency of their workforces for less money.
Not all lightweight solutions involve sophisticated technology. For years, governments and foundations in Africa have been trying to boost farmers' use of fertilizer through expensive grant and subsidy programs. Despite this, in Kenya less than one-third of farmers regularly used fertilizer. In one instance, a group of farmers was given free fertilizer for a season. Despite experiencing crop-yield increases of 70 percent, the majority went back to not using fertilizer the following season.
Why? The farmers explained that they had spent all the money from the previous harvest, leaving no money to buy fertilizer at sowing time.
To rectify this, researchers designed a program in which farmers can purchase a voucher for fertilizer right after a harvest period, to be delivered for the following sowing season. The nongovernmental organization implementing the program sold the vouchers at market price, with no subsidized discount, but the program doubled the number of farmers using fertilizer. This low-cost, lightweight approach achieved greater results than a costly, large-scale, international program to subsidize fertilizer use.
As these examples show, technology and innovative, lightweight approaches are breaking the chains that once inexorably linked better results to higher costs. They show a path to overcoming the seemingly unavoidable trade-off between paying more or getting less.
This column is adapted from William D. Eggers' and Paul Macmillan's new book, "The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government, and Social Enterprises Are Teaming Up to Solve Society's Toughest Problems."