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  • Writer's picturebrentforsberg

Why Infomercials Work: Using Requisite Variety for Local Solutions

How is it that when we are following the processes we are taught as "best practices," it just doesn't seem to work out how we are told it is supposed to? Our entire lives, we are inundated with books and videos that carry the "secret" to some outcome an individual desires to find. The author claims to have achieved the result we are striving for; making money, advancing our careers and/or hobbies, becoming more involved in a religion or philosophy, better health, or finding an inner balance. We are sold their "tried and true" method for success. 

Yet, following the plan, it seems the returns are mediocre at best and, in most cases, a waste of time and money. (Now use an animated infomercial voice in your head to read the following few sentences) Is it possible to actually find a one size fits all solution to almost every issue people face? The answer is, YESSSSS! Today I'm going to show you where the answers are to virtually any problem you have ever faced. But wait, there's more! For a limited time, not only will the location of the answers to all of life's problems be shown, but I will DOUBLE the offer with several handy tools to find your answers and the answers for the community around you. 

Sounds too good to be true, right? 

It's not! The answer is at your fingertips. Even though no operators are standing by, buying into this will change your life if used daily!

Billy Mays and Vince Offer used the secret as they relentlessly peddled ZorbEEZ and ShamWow towels in the 90s and early 00s. The towels had a variety of uses. Any liquid mess that needed picking up to polishing your treasures, these products offered the Requisite Variety of solutions. Scenarios the product worked on were presented one after the other. Then the question was asked can you think of how many times you could have used this product? The sales pitch for you today is the concept of Requisite Variety, the secret to solving every problem on Earth and perhaps beyond. (Back to infomercial voice) How does Requisite Variety work, you ask? 

It is a process defined in the 1950s by a scientist named Ross Ashby. When working within a system, it takes an equal amount or one more solutions to be available for use than the number of problems the system is going to encounter. Just like magic, it keeps adding solutions to whatever situation you are thrown.

Since everything is a system within a system, this law is universally applicable to anyone and any community. Even the human immune system, without our explicit knowledge of the idea, has applied it. Humanity's entire existence is based on it. Immunity to diseases is Requisite Variety, the system has to provide an antigen to meet every infection the body faces, or the body will face severe damage or loss of life. Even with the help of modern medicine, without the body, the fight for life cannot happen. Humanity would be completely wiped out if the right bug existed that no immune system could fight. Outside of the individuals in small groups, society couldn't exist in the modern era without the constant Requisite Variety overcoming the issues humans face to survive in the natural world. History has taught us well what happens when the gene pool doesn't constantly mix with requisite variety as humanity evolves.

A question from the audience, what happens when Requisite Variety doesn't exist? (As with any infomercial, this question was completely random. The host and the audience member have had no meaningful interactions in the past, so the answer is spontaneous and unscripted, giving it the sense of credibility it needs to help convince you of the real-time benefit of the product. Now back to the infomercial voice) When the answers become proscriptive, meaning variety in the solutions is no longer allowed to exist, at some point, unintended outcomes are going to occur. 

These outcomes will show symptoms just like the human body does when an infection occurs. Without the Requisite Variety to cure it, the problem will grow, causing long-term damage to a community and its people. It doesn't matter if it is applied to an individual's situation or to a community as a whole. Requisite Variety is the only solution available to deal with the complexity individual people and communities face.

How does Requisite Variety work? Great question! Unlike the gurus and self-help experts whose ideas have worked on only a small set of questions in the past, Requisite Variety doesn't use an individual solution. It provides the process in which many solutions can be available for a person or community. It's a process to follow to find the answer, not a given solution meant to be an answer.

Requisite variety figured out that the same predetermined solution pushed into a problem, even if the problem seemed the same as the last one solved by the given solution before, wouldn't always have the same outcome. In communities, one solution-based answer dated back to 1934 caused the decline of our urban cores more than almost any other policy. The Universal Securities in Lending maps defined where "safe" investments were for bank loans and defined redlining. The rule that kept minorities in the US from getting the same loans as white Americans until almost the 1990s (even in the 21st Century, residual effects in biases of appraisals (Segregation Tax Link) and bank approvals still show biases today.

Neighborhoods still haven't recovered Link to article). Yet other areas thrived and grew. Even in the third decade of the 21st Century, in the name of risk in federal lending, loans to create value and grow in many cities around the country cost more than loans in outlying communities.

Another solutions-based strategy; Cities applied single-use zoning codes predominately in post-WWII to govern uses and growth. This destroyed the culture and fabric of many social structures around the United States and the Western world. The solution saw the destruction of city cores and created wealth in other areas. This became known as White Flight Link. As more solutions were added, more problems arose. As infrastructure crumbled, businesses failed, and incomes stagnated, the importance of a variety in neighborhoods is only now becoming prevalent.

The same principle can happen in medicine. Doctors begin to treat symptoms by adding pills, and sometimes those pills can conflict in their effect on the human body, causing unintended damage. Requisite Variety is now being seen more in the primary care physician using the "Whole Person" approach in treatment. Instead of going from one specialist to another in silos to get treatment for single symptoms, some patients are met by an individual Doctor or teams to look at the loss of health holistically.

(Back to infomercial voice) As you can see, Requisite Variety has an answer for everyone! It is for everyone because it is a process. That process starts with asking the right questions, and getting to those requires lots of questions and discussions with everyone facing similar issues or wanting similar outcomes. It begins with creating a group of people facing the same issues to be solved and finding those that have faced similar ones in the past. Having a group that has met and/or is currently facing similar problems can help create the Requisite Variety needed.  

Now it's time for the bonus offer. What are the tools that could be used to create the process? First, a book recommendation.  Cracking Complexity by David Benjamin and David Komlos offers a very relatable structure to make a process for Requisite Variety. It is a business book, but the tools are universal to meaningful problem-solving. It could be a good resource for anyone to get started on the journey to finding Requisite Variety. Once the dialogue has begun, many resources can be found to help facilitate growth, many of which those working together will share as the process continues.

Interested in seeing what other groups are doing? Project for Public Spaces has many resources available for communities. contains decades of design and thoughts on what makes great places. will soon have a series of information focusing on the regeneration of all four forms of capital our existence is based in. has book recommendations, links, and resources to help find tools to facilitate local communities' growth. Even without all of the resources, just engaging with others can show that the knowledge and experience needed are already in the communities each person is a part of. It could just mean finding community-based groups with like interests and facilitating conversations for setting up the process of finding answers there. The secret of Requisite variety? It occurs at the place where the problems are being faced. 

It can only come from that hyper-local place and grow to something more. It only works when those facing the issues directly, are meaningfully engaged in finding the answers. (Infomercial voice finish) Communities will be standing by to feel the impact you create. Act now for the longest-lasting benefits from the results!


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