First Principles

I’ve written about first principles problem-solving before and what I want to share here is why that is a superior approach to a lot of our problems. There are a lot of work in the world today that is about incremental improvements and innovation. That typically involves isolating part of the difficulty or problem and then trying to deal with it by throwing different solutions. Often, you arrive at a solution by identifying a similar problem. That sort of tinkering on the edge of development, of management by exception is responsible for the solar panel costs to have fallen so much over the last decade it could be the cheapest source of electricity in many places (provided you have enough space); and for batteries to have become energy-dense and light enough to be powering ordinary cars.

But the challenge with such approach is that it gradually accumulates a lot of legacy issues in the overall system. There are parts of the system that developed solutions for problems of the past that might have gone away or there are clunky processes and work-around designed to solve problems created by another part of a system. This is why when Elon Musk set out to create Tesla or SpaceX, he ended up actually reworking a lot of supply chains for the existing products because the original supply chains had inefficiencies made what he was aimming for impossible.

A lot of our public systems have such legacy issues because they evolved by some measure of consensus over the decades or centuries and accumulate different constituencies and stakeholder groups. Which is to say that first-principle approach to problem-solving is very critical. I certainly welcome the exercise to refresh our social compact in Singapore and hope that it can be something we build from ground zero rather than be bogged down by past legacy issues. It is heartening that Lawrence Wong is actually taking time and intellectual bandwidth to ponder some of these issues; it will take decades to translate them into action but if we all can buy into the process, it’d be worth the effort to make the translation.