Some time in the mid-1990s I spent a day in a windowless room watching endless presentations of European television commercials. In the style of the times, most were filmed in exotic tropical locations with lavish production values, sumptuous photography and a pulsating soundtrack.
As the day drew to an end, the creative director of an Oslo advertising agency stood up to present his own work. He gave a self-deprecating cough. ‘Back in Norway we have no advertising money at all… so unfortunately we have to have an idea.’ He went on to show charming and imaginative advertisements, typically shot on video cameras. One series simply featured two people talking on a tram.
As he proved, imagination can be a good substitute for a big budget. Winston Churchill said something similar: ‘We have no money so we have to think.’ I have a friend who believes there is a direct relationship between inventiveness and parsimony, encouraged by the fact that supposedly stingy people (Scandinavians, Scots, Midwesterners, Jews) originate the world’s most important ideas. Certainly a DTI survey a decade ago revealed that, relative to population and GDP, Nordic countries are far more inventive than anyone else; interestingly Småland, home to both IKEA and Linnaeus (i.e. the world’s two most baffling systems of classification), is known as the Scotland of Sweden for its legendary tightfistedness.
If you ask me to describe in one sentence what is truly significant about the technological leap of the last 15 years, it would be this: that while imagination has always been a substitute for money, since about 1994 the exchange rate between imagination and money has shifted dramatically in favour of the former. In other words, in attempting to solve any problem, or to improve the lot of mankind, Return on Idea has improved faster than Return on Investment.
For this reason, we should spend less on grands projets and invest more time looking for those small ideas which can be just as life-transforming but at a fraction of the cost. If we had the time again, we should not have built the British Library, but spent 5 per cent of the money digitising the books instead. I rarely visit the British Library, yet a little idea called Instapaper.com (try it for yourself), built for a few thousand dollars, is useful to me every day.
We should also look harshly at such fatuous ideas as the £15 billion high-speed railway line to Birmingham. Can anyone think of a worse way to spend £15 billion of our money than in enabling people to reach Birmingham 25 minutes sooner? Since the average person spends three hours a day watching TV in any case, why not put televisions on trains (www.volo.tv) instead?
At best, then, periodic spending cuts may not only be necessary but intellectually healthy, challenging a widespread belief that big improvements come only from big budgets. A parsimonious approach to problems makes people more inventive, since it teaches them to think their way around problems rather than spending their way through them. And it is this parsimonious culture of invention that really generates wealth.
Milton Friedman was once challenged after a lecture in Norway. ‘Your ideas are very interesting, Professor, but here in Scandinavia we have no poverty.’ ‘That’s very interesting,’ replied Friedman, ‘because in the United States, among Scandinavians, we have no poverty either.’