Get to the root


This world is way too complex. Every day we have to work hard to do the seemingly simplest things and we’ve come to accept it as normal. It’s normal to have to fill things in triplicate. It’s normal that it takes a week to do your tax return (or pay someone who has spent a lifetime learning how to do it). It’s normal to wait in line to renew a drivers license. It’s normal to visit a community centre to vote in an election. It’s normal that I can send a friend money immediately but it takes 15 business days for a refund.


We’ve created a very complex infrastructure that makes it harder and harder to get things done quickly. Our countries have been built on top of archaic principles that haven’t adapted with time, instead we’ve layered on that complexity when we should be clearing it to the root and rebuilding to the times. This complexity uses too much effort and wastes money.

Attacking the root means cleaning up the things that aren’t important or relevant anymore or that can be simplified. How many times have you heard of an arcane law still in effect in cities around the world. Laws that have been in place for 100 years that only made since in a different era. We wonder why it is still there, laugh about it and forget it but it is emblematic of a bigger human challenge.

We like progress at the expense of doing the work.

It is much easier to simply add new laws or new provisions to old laws that don’t make sense in order to make them relevant. We do this to ourselves because it is easier to do it than it is to strip the legislation down and remove those laws that are no longer relevant. Our tax infrastructure is a perfect example. The regulations change so often that we now require an entire industry of people to make sure our filings are accurate. We simply hide bad code by writing more bad code. Our world runs because of this complexity. This results in humanity having to support an entire industry that is needed to support businesses so revenue is recognized in the correct way. We have added complexity instead of solving the core problem.

City infrastructure is a good example of attacking the root. In Canada we typically have 2 seasons: Winter and construction. There is a reason we have so much construction and it is a lesson in root planning. We live on top of pipes and sewers and electrical grids — all the amenities and complexities and necessities of modern life. When our infrastructure gets old, we don’t simply patch it where we can and move on. We don’t build a secondary pipe that bypasses the first pipe and call it a day like we do with our laws and tax systems. We know that won’t hold up so we eventually dig up roads, we pull out corroded pipes and replace them with modern materials that will last for 50 years. We attack the root cause of the problem and we solve it. Why? Because if we didn’t do it this way, we wouldn’t be able to flush our toilets, turn on our TVs or get clean water reliably. A breakdown of these essential services would cost the cities their taxes, businesses their revenue opportunities and both would suffer from lowered reputations. This would eventually lead to slow employment growth, lower the population growth, a decrease in the inability to attract more businesses and, ultimately, irrelevance.

Solving the root is not an option for our city infrastructure so why don’t we learn from this?

Nature has been telling us what to do from the get go. When I was younger, I watched my mother garden. She would start in the winter by potting plants in the house and let them have warmth and sunlight as they waited for spring. Once the weather was right, my mother would take the plants outside, dig them up right down to the roots and plant them in the earth. Those roots, the things that made the plants part of the planet, fed and nurtured their growth, allowing them to bear the fruits they were intended to. Without the roots, they are inorganic, dead things that disappear back into the ground. Deep solid roots are what make or break your harvest. That hasn’t ever changed. Plants haven’t altered their evolution for anything better because a root is as simple and effective as possible. No complexity, no evolution. No root? No plant. No plant? No fruit.

The root is the thing.

Even as we adopted technology into our lives it was used to mask the complexity we’ve built around us. Our computers and smartphones, now incredibly powerful machines, handle a tremendous amount of complexity that masks the root of many problems. We’ve come to rely on them for the simple things like entertainment — a portable version of a record player or television set — but we’ve also started to rely on their ability to hide the complexity, the root problems, all behind a submit button. This is both a blessing and a curse. It ties things up in a nice little bow — all those loose ends that we’ve struggled with until now — and we can let the code handle the root challenge. This is great! Until you realize that we’ve built so much complexity in order to avoid solving the root that eventually no humans will understand the way our systems work. Maybe this is why we fear true AI?

Companies face this challenge all the time. The good ones aren’t afraid to dig up their roots and replant or even rethink the soil they’ve chosen. The industry calls it a pivot but it is really digging deep enough to solve the problem facing them instead of piling on more dirt and hoping. The brave companies do this. Some companies make it work, others simply can’t.

Our cities may be getting the infrastructure right but some of the things we are doing on the ground aren’t even close to attacking the root. We accept that a certain number of our residents will be challenged to find work or afford a home or even have access to fresh food. We’ve built an entire infrastructure around this very challenged subset of our population. Community housing and local food banks abound. Here we are focusing on solving the problem for today, not solving for the root cause that focuses on eradicating it completely. There should be no reason we have to have any of these social services if we help solve the root cause of each. It may cost a lot up front. It may require a shift in thinking. It may require a lot of patience. But solving the root means eliminating the problem not just pushing it off to the next generation.

So many of our decisions are made in the context of the present. I’m as guilty as the next person. Who has time to stop and dig when there are so many pressing issues compounding daily? Eventually you will end up solving for problems that aren’t relevant to your success. These are just the outcomes of losing sight of your root. And we all know that without a solid root, there is no fruit.