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Tim Harcourt is a professional economist specialising in international trade and labour economic issues in the Asia Pacific region and in the emerging economies. Tim's passion is Australia's engagement with the global economy and the challenges and opportunities it offers business and the Australian community as a whole.

Tim has broad experience in public policy and in communicating international economic issues widely in the community. He has held senior roles in both the public sector and private sector in Australia and internationally and in the community and education sectors. In Australia he has worked for the Reserve Bank of Australia, Fair Work Australia, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU and the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade).


The Airport EconomistAustralian exporters conquering global markets
Beyond Our ShoresEssays on Australia and the Global Economy By Tim Harcourt, Chief Economist, Australian Trade Commission
Going The DistanceEssays on Australia and the Global Economy: 2004-2008 By Tim Harcourt, Chief Economist, Australian Trade Commission

Harcourt on Harford : Accidents do happen and thank god for that!

Posted by on September 24th, 2012 · Publications

by Tim Harcourt*

I met Tim Harford by accident. I got a call once from a journalist asking my views on the economics of sexual activity. As a trade economist expecting a call about exports I was a bit surprised but in the true Aussie spirit I thought I would ‘give it a go’. But as I was trying to answer the questions about teenagers and oral sex, the journalist said to me “hang on you don’t sound very English.” I replied: “Well, No because I am Australian.” The journo said: “Aren’t you Tim Harford the author of The Undercover Economist? From London” I replied “No I am Tim Harcourt, the Airport Economist, based here in Sydney.” The perplexed journo realised the mistaken identity but with some adaptable lateral thinking he decided to write a feature on both of us, the two Tims, The Undercover Economist and The Airport Economist with similar names though from separate sides of the world. As a result, Tim (Harford) saw the article, found out about his almost namesake and got in touch with me when he came to Sydney. We had a beer in The Rocks and we’ve been friends since and hence this blog. And as they say the rest is history.

Ironically, in a way that life sometimes imitates art, the Harford-Harcourt chance meeting over a beer is central to the theme of Tim Harford’s excellent new book Adapt. Accidents do happen and we can benefit from them. And not only that, if we over plan things they may not and we may get an even worse result. Adapt teaches us that it is ok to fail, it is ok to experiment safely and lives and enterprises that are over-planned, over managed and over measured are bound to fail. Adapt is good news for creativity and bad news for management consultants. Adapt gives great examples of this occurring everywhere from Xerox to the Soviet Union and World War Two. Along with the book by John Kay, Tim’s colleague at the Financial Times, titled Obliquity, I think Adapt is one of the best business books you’ll ever read.

A great example of the Harford thesis in Adapt comes from my own travels experienced in The Airport Economist (I travelled to study 56 countries in 5 years to study their economies, hence many airports and the title!). In the first chapter Everybody loves Raymond I tell the story of Singapore and the saga of their ‘Be Creative” drives engineered by Cabinet Minister Raymond Lim. Singapore thought it had a ‘problem’. Whilst it was economically successful and produced lots of people with technical and financial skills, like engineers and superannuation fund managers, it felt let down on the ‘left hand side of the brain’ department and thought it needed to produce more poets and ballet dancers. As a result the Government decreed: “We must all be more creative. So everyone must report to creative classes between 10am and 12 noon sharp on Saturday mornings. They are compulsory. As from now on, in Singapore we take fun, seriously.” Funnily enough, the compulsory creative classes didn’t work so well but by accident a Singaporean student knew John Bell, from Bell Shakespeare and brought him over to teach civil servants a bit about Shakespeare. This worked a lot better than the compulsory classes. And Raymond Lim, decided he’d fuse Singapore’s technical skills with international multimedia (attracting the likes of National Geographic) and built a new Opera House ‘The Durian’ (ok, it’s not the Sydney Opera House but it’s not bad).

The Singapore episode demonstrates the lessons in Adapt. Accidents do happen and if you adapt and leverage them good things can come. And if you force things like innovation and creativity and control things, you might produce an opposite result. I think many of us in our business lives – in both the private and public sectors – have seen the adverse impact of managerialism with management – speak, like mission statements, performance management, brand-nazis and other forms of ‘McKinseyitis’. As Adapt shows, people want mentors not managers, and need the space to create and adapt instead of being planned and ‘outcomes-driven’ out of existence.

So I met Tim Harford by accident and thanks to some quick thinking (Adapt style) by a journo, and the universal interest in sex by all, The Airport Economist-Undercover Economist, partnership was born with Freakonomics soon to make up a unique trifecta (you’ve seen the three tenors, wait until you see the three economists!).
And if you loved The Undercover Economist you’ll love Adapt (and Tim’s performance at the Sydney Opera House**). And you can trust me on that one; after all I am an economist….. called Tim.

**For details of Tim Harford’s performance at the Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas see:

*Tim Harcourt is the JW Nevile Fellow in Economics at the University of New South Wales and author of The Airport Economist www.theairporteconomist.com











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