Archive for August 2010

efficiency and inefficiency

August 13th, 2010 — 7:21pm

You can think about efficiency from lots of different angles. Most often, it tends to be seen as a paring down to essentials, a stripping away of extraneous or unnecessary material, process, red tape. We think of efficient things as lean, stripped-down, evolved to the point at which only what is absolutely necessary still exists. Aesthetically, we have come to attach great value to an industrial, austere look that comes from the visions of people like Arne Jacobsen, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and lately Dieter Rams. Paradoxically, almost, we have started to equate this minimal design with quality, with exclusivity, as though the less there is, the more focussed and refined a product or image is, the more valuable it should be. We celebrate the attenuation of detail in designs by people like Jony Ive, Tom Ford, Roland Mouret.

Perhaps this is because the simple, the minimal, can so easily become iconic or totemic. The removal of distractions, of untidinesses, creates a powerful visual symbolism, a symbolism of power, or symmetry, or perfection. Google’s (usually) minimalist home page has this power. It becomes identified with the Web so strongly because it presents no distractions, it offers no visual interference from the stuff we are looking for. It goes from being a portal, a representation of the Web, to being the thing itself.

Anyway, I’m getting lost. In corporate terms, and indeed in economic terms, again, we tend to think of efficiency as something that requires a burning away (of chaff, or waste) until we are left with only that which is absolutely necessary to get the job done.

But there is at least one other important way to think about efficiency, not as a constant battle to contain, or reduce, expenditure, waste or interference, but as an attempt to liberate hidden potential, as a way of releasing the energy that is trapped in minds, in systems, in companies and organisations that remains unfulfilled. If it is true that we tend to use only ten percent of our brains, imagine how much more efficient we could be if we learned how to harness all of that spare capacity.

Or, to look at it in a different way, imagine how much we could achieve as a society, as a country, if instead of making large parts of the workforce undertake low-paid menial jobs which they hate and which have a very low yield in terms of productivity or net financial benefit to the economy, we could give these workers the tools to start and run their own profitable businesses, imagine how much more wealth (and for that matter much more importantly how much more real capital) we could create. One of the important things about the Open Source Software movement was that they understood this idea of efficiency and instead of trying to enclose their projects and reduce the number of people working on them they massively increased efficiency by throwing them open to a wider global community.

Profit itself is, when all is said and done, an inefficient allocation of capital. This is one of the (and there are many) contradictions that make Capitalism (by which I mean late-stage radically de-regulated Capitalism) such a dicey enterprise. I’m not one of these false prophets you will hear crying that we are in the End Times and that the next stage of society is a revolution and that Capitalism is inevitably dead. No, carefully managed free markets under a liberal democratic system of government still have a lot to offer. But that management is critical. A true understanding of the role markets play in broad economic terms, and their reliance on and indebtedness to a democratic political system, is required. But we have not yet found (and I find it hard to imagine that we will) a better pricing mechanism than a well run market.

To return to my point, efficiency can be understood in different ways, and so, therefore, can inefficiency. Inefficiency seen as the opposite of this sought-after minimalist perfection is the encumbrance of a process or an organisation with too much complexity, too many unnecessary details. But if the process or the aims of an organisation are not straightforward – for instance in the case of an artist’s creative process – what does inefficiency really mean? For genuine creativity and originality to exist there has to be, by definition, a degree of inefficiency (in the strictest sense) because innovation often comes from the conversation between ideas, from dialogue, from experimentation, even from moments of abstruse experience or imagination which cannot be predicted. It is very hard to ‘refine’ this process, even if it were desirable to do so. Part of the beauty of creativity is the vagary of that journey.

And it is not only innovation and originality that comes from what we might classically define as ‘inefficient’ patterns of work or thought. Diversity and richness of experience also emerge from an attitude of appreciation, of curiosity. Efficiency (so-called) discards these things in favour of speed and simple productivity. But if that is all it does, then it becomes self-defeating because nothing can be truly efficient in the long run without an ability to maximise opportunities for self-renewal and inspiration.

Especially now, in a time when the tools of production (for want of a better phrase) are increasingly in the hands of everybody, it would be helpful not to think of efficiency and inefficiency in simple terms, or as simple binaries. We can increase efficiency, and public goods, not simply by removing waste, but by learning the lessons the Web has taught us: that true efficiency comes from realising the potential of all of your assets, all of your people, the whole community, and by allowing yourself always to reinvent, to renew and to be inspired by new ideas and new methods, even if that means sacrificing an elegant simplicity to the greater richness of a complex set of ideas.

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