Embrace experimentation

2017-03-22 2 min read

    Rather than debating various approaches the best way to determine the ideal option is to run an experiment and look at the outcome. The tech industry has embraced this and is constantly running all sorts of A/B tests to optimize any and all metrics. Unfortunately, this approach hasn’t spread to the rest of society where decisions are based on abstract theories and perceptions. Imagine how much society could improve if we expanded experimentation into policies affecting our cities, states, and countries.

    It’s not going to be easy since it’s not just pushing new code out but the value would be incredible. Changing the color on a button on a webpage may improve user conversions by a fraction of a percent but testing a traffic congestion policy can improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in a big city. Imagine running an experiment to see what sort of education or health policies work best - that could improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people and the sooner we start the better. Rather than getting defensive and worried about change we should be optimistic about the opportunity change can bring.

    One way we can do this as a society is to introduce laws with an expiration date that have a higher bar for renewal. It may only take a simple majority to try an experiment but to extend or make it permanent may require 75% of the vote. The goal is to make it easy to run experiments but difficult to get them to stick around unless they’re clearly delivering value.

    This is a big shift from the way society has been running but there are signs that this is starting to happen. Finland is running a basic income trial but it’s targeted. I’m more encouraged by the basic income trial in Kenya which will give the residents of 200 villages a monthly income that will span the next 12 years. We need to see this willingness to run long term experiments and while it’s significantly cheaper to do this in developing countries I’m hopeful that we’ll start seeing these trials everywhere.