Subtract Book Summary - Subtract Book explained in key points
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Subtract summary

Leidy Klotz

The Untapped Science of Less

4.2 (1250 ratings)
24 mins
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    Subtraction is an overlooked force for change.

    In 1985, Sue Bierman was a city planner with a mission. She wanted the people of San Francisco to agree to remove something from their city. The thing she wanted taken away? An ugly double-decker freeway that blocked the city’s waterfront. Without this freeway, Bierman argued, San Franciscans could actually enjoy their beautiful shoreline. But Bierman quickly encountered the problem you’ll discover in these blinks: people don’t like to subtract

    Even though Bierman’s proposal was sound, San Franciscans from all walks of life – politicians to business owners to ordinary citizens – voted to keep the freeway. It was only four years later, when the freeway was badly damaged by the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake, that the city finally had no choice but to remove it. 

    This is the key message: Subtraction is an overlooked force for change. 

    What happened after the freeway was subtracted from San Francisco? Well, these days, the space it used to occupy is known as the Embarcadero waterfront. It's one of the most popular tourist attractions in America, bringing visitors, jobs, and money to the city.

    Sue Bierman realized she could create positive change by taking something away. But like the citizens of San Francisco, most of us struggle to think positively about subtraction.

    When we think about how to make things better, we usually think about adding things. Not convinced? Then consider these questions: When you make a New Year’s resolution, do you resolve to do more of something rather than less? When you’re working on a piece of writing, do you spend more time writing new sentences than editing what you’ve already written? If you answered yes to either of the above, then you might be neglecting subtraction – and suffering as a result. 

    Think about your home. Your house might not be packed with ugly freeways, but the average American home contains over 250,000 items! That’s a lot of stuff; it’s also a mammoth task to keep it all organized. Failing to subtract is a problem on a much larger scale, too. Most of us realize that we’re adding too much carbon to our climate. But when we consider global warming, we often focus on how to add carbon more slowly – and rarely talk about how we can remove existing carbon from the atmosphere.

     In the next blink, we’ll explore why we fail to subtract. 

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    What is Subtract about?

    Subtract (2021) explores subtraction as a way to make positive change. It examines the human love affair with adding and having “more” – and it explains how our brains and environments work against subtraction. 

    Who should read Subtract?

    • Design professionals looking for a fresh perspective
    • Psychology buffs wanting new insights
    • Anthropology enthusiasts

    About the Author

    Leidy Klotz is a professor of Engineering at the University of Virginia. He specializes in the connections between design and behavioral science. 

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