What can shoelaces teach us about tradition, expertise, and innovation?

Do you remember when you first learned to tie your shoelaces? Who taught you? How many times have you tied them since then? Have you ever stumbled or fallen because they were undone? How do you tie a knot? And what can we learn from these ribbons that we use everyday to keep our feet in our shoes?

Tradition is not necessarily optimal.

Shoelaces are ancient technology. While there’s a dubious claim that they were invented in 1790, this was probably an upgrade and not the first use by a long shot. Evidence suggests that shoelaces may have been around for more than 5000 years: a pair of shoes that we encountered from that era has lots of laces on it.

This means that we have been tying our shoelaces for millennia. We are also familiar with a wide variety of knots, especially thanks to activities like scouting, sailing and climbing. Yet, it turns out when it comes to shoes, most of us are doing it wrong and can do better. It is curious to see that a method we learned from older generations and hence stood the test of time can still be problematic. Most of us do it everyday, yet we don’t think about the possibility of improving the traditional method both for ourselves and the generations to come.

Expertise can be found in unexpected places. 

There are several safety concerns about shoelaces. Why do they really come undone? How many falls and injuries do they cause in a year? How dangerous are untied shoelaces for different ages and professions: children, elderly, dancers, runners? Luckily, for instance, Usain Bolt was not hindered by his in the 100-meter Olympic finals.

Believe it or not, engineers in the University of California at Berkeley have studied how shoelaces come undone in some detail. It turns out that the knot gets loosened by the stomp of our step and then the swinging ends of the laces cause it to get promptly undone while we walk.

Yet these sophisticated researchers made a crucial mistake: they neglected to consult a genuine expert on this subject. Ian Fieggen, a.k.a. Professor Shoelace, has been studying shoelaces for decades. His website and Youtube channel explain in detail why the traditional knots don’t work well, offers an insightful alternative, and shows how to tie a bow knot with one hand, among hundreds of other shoelace related facts.

He recently penned an apt critique of the knot study, which was also published by the same journal. In this particular context, the scientific paper, the media articles that followed, and most importantly the readers would have benefited from his inputs.

There’s room for innovation in everything. 

Over the years we improved the materials we use, created a wide variety of styles, and introduced aglets (rigid parts at the ends) to improve functionality. Yet the concept of shoelace hasn’t changed much over time. In the 1980s, we replaced them with Velcro in some shoes. But the fashion industry soon decided that these were unfashionable. We use zippers sometimes, especially on long boots, but rarely on shoes. We did get rid of laces altogether to create loafers, but in most shoes we seem to be stuck with the old yet still effective shoelace technology.

Things may be changing. Recently, some people got rather frustrated with tying their shoelaces everyday and seeing them get frequently undone, which pushed them to become inventors and entrepreneurs. So, there have been several interesting developments. Are we nearing the end of traditional shoelaces? You’ll be the judge of that:

Lock Laces, Laceez and U-laces still look like and work like shoelaces, but they are designed so you don’t need to tie them. An effective way to eliminate knots altogether.

Undo Laces are traditional laces with a twist. They allow you to change the shoelaces quickly and frequently thanks to the added magnetic aglets. And for every lace you buy, they purchase carbon-offset credits on your behalf.

Hickies bring major innovation to the market. These are not your typical shoelaces. They are individual adjustable elastic straps you install, remove and replace at will.

Last but not least, there are the power laces, famously envisioned by Back to the Future and hopefully soon to be built by Nike and other major brands. There are some working versions like Powerlace and ZeroTie already out there.

Shoelaces are essentially small, thin and relatively short ribbons. This made some people think beyond their usual function and about how and where else they can be useful. They may even help you survive.

Keep track of how often your shoelaces get undone and consider improving the way you (and your children) interact with them by checking out a wide variety of methods and products online.

And ask yourself, what else in your life is like shoelaces?


Originally published in psychologytoday.com

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