Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is efficiency effective?

A week ago I gave a talk at TEDx Rochester about a phenomenon I'm researching: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. Social business models adhere to a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. And distributed manufacturing, a shift powered by increased access to rapid prototyping tools, is a shift away from our current centralized manufacturing.

I was happy to receive a range of feedback. The geeks beamed: "Now I have an excuse to buy a 3D printer!" A travel agent told me how my thesis applied to her work, as did a community art-space organizer. And the skeptics? I know they were out there, but for the most part they were silent. One of them, one of my fellow speakers, pulled me aside and asked, "How can this be efficient?"

I'm not quick on my feet so I stumbled in my response to him. When he asked, "How can this be efficient?" I dodged his concern and answered with something snippy and defensive, like "Efficiency isn't the issue. I just want an alternative to foreign children making our products."
In part I stand by that snippy response. It captures the passion I feel about this shift. But now that I've had a week to think about it, a better response comes to mind; I think I would have brought it back to his own talk, in which he and a team of puppeteers made a case for transitioning from lecture teaching to guided inquiry. They based their argument not on efficiency but on effectiveness.

Efficiency is about doing things faster and cheaper, and lecturing is efficient. But effectiveness is about doing things that are rich and meaningful. What he was arguing is that guided inquiry is effective, but he didn’t compare the effectiveness against its efficiency. I want to question whether they have to be mutually exclusive. While it would be easy for me to claim that efficiency and effectiveness are opposed, I've got Roger Martin's voice in my head telling me to resolve them, to find the space where they meet, or at least complement each other. Because both of them have staying power.

I want to now address concerns about efficiency. I see three choices before us:

1. We drop efficiency as a value (not likely)
2. We make these new distributed models adhere to our current definition of efficiency
3. We redefine efficiency, factoring in externalities

We need to answer these questions not only about distributed manufacturing, but about other distributed models that are on the rise. The local food sector faces similar challenges about efficiency, as does the alternative energy sector.


  1. Hi Xanthe, thanks for the post and posing this question - it's a good one. The following are *my own* opinions, developed over my time working with fabricators and makers through my role at Ponoko.

    As you suggest with choice #3, I would question just how efficient our existing manufacturing and supply chains are when you consider the entire lifecycle of a product - the amount of resources required to make enormous volumes of them, transport them all over the world and then dispose of them, as per "The Story of Stuff": http://www.storyofstuff.org/

    One way to look at the efficiency provided by distributed manufacturing is that a product can be made only when it is needed, as close as possible to where it is needed, only in the volume that is needed. Also, if anything is to be shipped around, it will be raw material - such as sheets, powder or rolls - much easier to transport and infinitely more transmutable than tables, action figures and yet another dinner set.

    Also when it comes to "stuff", we don't actually need that much of it - speaking as someone who moved countries last year and put together a new home from scratch. What reduces our need for "stuff" even more is for the things we do acquire to be exactly what we were looking for. Distributed Manufacturing provides a platform to make that a much more likely future than Mass Manufacturing. It also means that if my favorite coffee cup breaks, I can get just that one cup made again, exactly as it was. I can get that one snapped part of our folding table replaced - rather than the entire table.

    Finally, like laundromats, gyms and Kinkos - there will be shared usage of these machines. I wouldn't expect every apartment in a building to have their own 3D printer, but I can envisage shared-use printers beside the shared washers and driers. Membership-based fabrication shops like TechShop already exist and are spreading, and services like ours are connecting people who want to make with fabricator owners who can help you do so.

    Alongside access to the machines, I'd speculate the two key factors we need are growing libraries of *assuredly* ready-to-make designs (which are definitely forming), and a desire from the general public to have more agency over the objects which surround them.

    Those are some initial thoughts, anyway - I'd love to hear what others think, and continue looking at this idea of redefining the meaning of "efficiency"...

  2. Hey, I'm the geek that made that comment! (My wife still isn't buying it, though...)

    I would make the argument that #3 is the state we need to shoot for. In order to make it, we take some slight liberty with the use of "price" and "cost". The price of an object is what's on the tag, it's what you actually pay for it. The overall cost, though, is the price paid by everyone for that one item.

    So, using that as a baseline, the price of my new cell phone might be $100, but the cost is near slave labor in China (we'll exclude all of the suicides and other deaths at places like Foxconn because they're too depressing) and high levels of pollution from production, shipping, packaging and disposal. BTW, that disposal doesn't just include the cost of disposing of my phone, but the disposal of the thousands that were made that never sold because it's so inexpensive to make them they just make lots of extras and just throw 'em into the pile when the new model comes out.

    The Right-wing likes to make the point that if we increased pollution controls or the standard of living for the people making our products that we'd lose efficiency and prices would go up. Well, DUH! They say it as if it's a bad thing. Perhaps if I had to pay $300 for my cell phone because no one died and the Earth wasn't permanently scarred in its manufacture (in other words, all of the actual costs are accounted for in the price) I might be less inclined to get a new one each year and contribute to the problem. Companies might have to shift to coming out with new models every two years (which would nicely coincide with bi-annual contracts) because they have to slow down this now-costly production. And so on...

    Looking back, I'm starting to ramble, so I'll try to make my point: your from-the-gut argument was the correct one. Despite lower prices and increased availability of products we are NOT currently efficient. The model presented by you is the more efficient model because it reduces "stuff" to a manageable, sustainable model. You buy not only what you need, but it's tailored directly to your needs so it's more likely to hang around.

  3. Tony. You weren't the only geek who said that to me!

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comments Tony and Josh. I'm left wondering a few things:
    1. Is it a cop-out to choose option three?
    2. If we go with option three, who does the redefining?
    3. If your answer is "gov't does it" will the republicans buy in?
    4. If the repubs don't buy in, is that a problem?
    5. If the market does the redefining, how does that go down?


  5. i think in #3 efficiency really equals sustainability. and of course the hard part is changing people and keeping them changed.

    total cost of X is not what the average american considers when they buy something. going away from the technology industry for a minute (but tony, you raise good points...is my $100 phone worth supporting slave and/or orphan labor?)....if you live in virginia or new york and want to buy strawberries in november, you will buy them from california or mexico, most likely. the cost of that quart of strawberries is more than the $4 to put it in your cart, obviously...you've made a carbon footprint and if you've bought from central or south america, you've made a [tiny but easily compounding] global economic decision.

    over time, as americans become used to eating strawberries year round, we will ultimately come to expect it and the biggest challenge is making people believe, despite the marketing that tells them that fresh fruits and vegetables are GOOD (no matter what time of year), that we MUST adjust our behavior based on facts.

    xanthe says that efficiency is about doing things faster and cheaper...and certainly in some industries it is. but right now there is and enormous value placed on the wrong stuff. i value getting my THING from manufacturer to retailer without breaking so i must user wasteful packaging to make sure my apples don't bruise or my lightbulbs don't break. getting an apple locally is a lot easier than getting a light bulb locally but it's also easier to use a light bulb efficiently once it gets to your house than it is an apple :)

    in food, we're told to shorten the time, effort, and distance from production of a certain food to consumption of it. cut out as many middlemen as possible. in a perfect world we put a pot of herbs on our windowsills and do not buy plastic encased herbs sitting on a cooled shelf in a high impact grocery store. in reality, the numbers of those plastic encased herbs has grown dramatically - used to be 3 or 4 in my local grocery...now there's a dozen. and "we" think this is GOOD. it means people are moving from the center of the store where the hamburger helper is to the outer edges of the store where there is a shorter distance from production to mouth. and in many ways it is good. it's an important step. "hey - look - you can cook fresh food" but the next step needs to be "but you can't have strawberries in november unless you go to california." and of course we ultimately want people OUT of the store entirely....we want them at farmers markets or in their own yards (or fire escapes or windowsills or whatever they have) putting seeds in pots and not putting plastic clamshells in the recycling and paying to refrigerate shelf space in the grocery. some days i feel like that's a long way off but some days i feel like the local food industry is the only industry growing in this country right now.

    worry less about scalability of an idea - worry more about repeatability of an idea. think about what goes in your mouth and when. ask yourself why you buy a new cell phone or other electronic gadget every [year]. i don't think it's because you don't know what goes into it. i think it's caused you've been educated to value one thing over another.

    and now I'M rambling....

  6. Thanks Sara. Related to American consumer buying habits, like strawberries in Sep or always the cheapest, I think Patagonia is doing something interesting. They are sending out a message - "Think before you buy something from us." And then their hope is that if consumers make more thoughtful decisions - do I really need this - they will be willing to spend more on something that was made to last or made in a way that respects triple bottom line principles.


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