The Complexity Trap

9 thoughts on “The Complexity Trap”

  1. I work for a company that does energy efficiency in buildings, and frequently encounter problems of complexity and risk. I think that often building systems are designed and implemented because projections from a spreadsheet suggested some adequate level of performance, and nobody accounted for the odds that things wouldn’t work right or something bizarre would happen. But in reality weird stuff happens all the time and so you end up with the heat fighting the AC, or a fancy, expensive heat pump laying idle while backup natural gas chugs along. It seems like the people designing these things rarely attempt to estimate or quantify the benefits of simplicity and reliability. Those factors don’t make it into the energy models.

    We have a mantra Design For Off (Operating For Free), but it’s been I think a lonely road at times for the engineers. The idea is to design things such that they don’t need to run. Lots of insulation, good windows, daylighting, occupancy sensors. Leave things off unless they need to be on. It sounds pretty straightforward, but maybe isn’t always enough “added value.” The “design for off” buildings are rarely sexy: they typically look just like normal buildings but use way less energy. The more popular alternative seems to be train car sized HVAC boxes on the roof that run 24/7 even if it’s 65 degrees out. Those are probably the Orderly but Dumb version of building system design, while the combination of operable windows, zonal DHPs, and ceiling fans is the Chaotic but Smart, or something like that

    1. You’re right about environmental systems being incredibly dumb. One building I worked in had zoned areas from a central HVAC, having one thermostat with “adjusters” located in each zone to bump temp up or down a few degrees. So one especially hot summer the AC was chugging a bit too hard, so adjusted the temp up a little. So the stupid thing turned off the AC then fired up the heater to raise the temp! Other times just bringing in more outside air would have worked (of course the windows didn’t open). Some automobile controls are like this too. Heat and AC are blended for the desired temp. Even the old cars weren’t that dumb.

  2. The biggest problem I see in our economy is that there is too much labor supply. Starting in the 40s and through the 70s, we doubled our per capita supply of labor (i.e. women entered the workforce at the same time a huge cohort became working aged.) The result of this is the stagnant wages we all know so well, but also the less apparent but still very real fact that many people have make-work jobs. A lot of the work people engage in doesn’t create wealth in the fundamental sense. It might transfer wealth from one group to another, but it doesn’t create wealth. In other words, from a societal perspective, a lot of the work people do has no value. Of course, the French had the right solution to this problem, we should all take Fridays and the month of July off work. Maybe we should take Thursdays off too.

    1. Demographics definitely play a roll in stagnant wages. However, American workers haven’t been competing with each other. They’ve been competing with foreign workers and machines. I see offshoring and mechanization as the primary factors. I disagree completely with your assertion that we have “make work” jobs. To the degree that there are unproductive positions in the economy these are parasitic bureaucracies that oversee the productive work of others. The middle men in health insurance and banking, for example, who skim 20% off the top without producing any value.

      Why pay a union worker in the States when their fungible low wage equivalent can do the same work in Ciudad Juarez or Guangdong for pennies on the dollar? America opened up its boarders to allow home industries to move away as well as let in foreign goods. We chose lower cost consumer items on the store shelves (and higher corporate profits) over employment and higher wages at home. Other countries maintained trade barriers and import tariffs for decades. They chose full employment and incrementally higher wages and excepted more expensive consumer goods. Pick your poison. Would you rather have a job and expensive toaster ovens, or cheap toaster ovens and no job?

      I toured the Ford River Rouge assembly plant in Michigan a while back and there were barely a few dozen humans involved in manufacturing pick up trucks. It’s all about robots now. When was the last time you saw a human travel agent? It’s all computerized on-line bookings over the internet these days. I scan my own groceries at the check out line and pump my own gas now. The next wave of mechanization is going after white collar jobs. Artificial intelligence is working its way into accounting, medicine, and law. One highly educated computer geek in Seattle or Silicon Valley (or Seoul or Hyderabad) is replacing thousands of low skill workers across the economy.

      Personally, I see international hostilities around the world creating conditions that will close boarders and disrupt trade routes. This will both cut off cheap imported goods and focus the economy back towards domestic production. We’ll just have to pay more for everything as a trade off for local jobs. I think we can all live with a whole lot less cheap plastic crap from China.

  3. I know one exception to the complexity trap described above (which I fully subscribe to): private developers/owners. I’m constantly looking for ways to simplify systems, projects, buildings, etc. Obviously, this is because we don’t want to spend all our money on all these professionals & contractors who make money by doing more (actually that recalls the problem of fee for service in medical care). Essentially the developer stands in the middle of the flood of complexity, solving problems, etc. Beyond the profit motive as a way of mediating all the many demands of the world, regulators, etc. we are the only people who are actually tasked with balancing costs, safety, utility, etc. The fire protection officer is perfectly comfortable asking for a $100,000 item that is a back up to a back up to a back up in a fully sprinklered building. I see more and more why (often liberal) professionals–the class that I’m from–are the biggest reasons why we can’t have nice things…

  4. Yes. I’ve long observed this as a self-described “practical enviromentalist” who is always talking to pie-in-sky people about “low hanging fruit” and specifics like “the first R is “Reduce”. I also love cogeneration (read about, if you haven’t already, NYC’s Edison-era waste heat steam pipes still used in heating a small part of Manhattan today.)

    My circumstances make me prefer streetcar suburban living, but I remember the appeal of downtowns when I was single and childless, so I don’t hate urbanity; — so, anyway, here’s some food for thought for you: in spite of the fact that there are lots of built-in efficiencies in urban-living per resident, consider that there CAN be some sustainable advantages to suburban, etc, living, along the lines of “the solution to pollution is dilution” — if, for example, the Suburban Man need not commute or send his waste to far away core, and if he can be convinced that his domain not include a landscape that requires expensive and enviro-hostile inputs (attractive suburbs need not look like golf courses with houses), there may be environmental benefits, not just to the world, but in his childrens’ blood streams, along the lines of that it doesn’t matter how many people drive Priuses in Portland, the air is still cleaner in most places where everyone drives pick-ups.

  5. Spot on. Civilization seems to be built on making things more complicated. Yet, Nature is vastly more complicated and interrelated than anything humans do. Where do we fail? The “big plant” obsession comes to my mind as one culprit. How do we move forward? Perhaps biomimicry, modularity, and better materials can help? Thanks for posting.

  6. “There’s no money in simplifying systems, reducing consumption, or eliminating debt. That’s the beginning, middle, and end of what’s driving our current circumstances.” Love that.

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