Starting Over

I have a favorite thought exercise, especially when thinking about the sort of complex, dynamic systems that are interesting but difficult to write about: the health-care system, e.g., or education, politics, energy consumption, finance, cancer research, etc.

One natural way to approach such systems is to take note of what inputs and outputs already exist and then, isolating them, try to measure the success of each one. If you’re trying to assess U.S. public grade-school education, you can look at the great many metrics that represent the system — dollars per pupil, class size, incoming IQ’s, mode of instruction, length of day, etc. — and try to come up with ideas to make the entire system better by changing one or two or three inputs. I watched a lot of the Democratic debate last night, and saw many, many examples of such thinking.

But the thought exercise I’m talking about comes at things from a different angle. Complex systems are complex in part because of the way they evolve; that is just the nature of the beast. And so, while it’s important to understand why a particular system evolved as it did — to understand the financial, political, social, scientific, and psychological forces that shaped the way, for instance, that cancer is treated in this country — I find it useful to ask an entirely different question: if we were making this system up from scratch today, what would it look like?

I find this thought experiment particularly useful when interviewing people. Let’s say that someone knows an awful lot about medicine or education or energy. She probably has a huge storehouse of knowledge, and maybe even some strong opinions, but in the course of a typical day, she’s required to fiddle around the edges of the complex system, making very minor changes that will seldom have a big effect. But when you ask a person like this what she’d do if she could build the system from scratch — well, that tends to produce some interesting answers, and may shed light on systemic failings that may otherwise go unspoken.

Given my fondness for this approach, I was tickled to read this New York Times article by Jason Pontin about the biotech company Amyris. Using a technology called metabolic engineering, Amyris “has almost finished developing a cheap cure for malaria that could save the lives of millions,” Pontin writes. Next up: “new biofuels that may help save the planet.” Here is the passage that caught my eye:

Amyris chose to ask something more basic and more interesting: What would perfect fuels look like if they were designed from scratch? The start-up decided to concentrate on the second stage of creating a biofuel: fermenting sugars into fuel.

It is well worth reading the entire piece, for I haven’t done a good job here conveying the ideas brewing at Amyris. But my point is a simple one: just because systems evolve over time in a complicated, random, even contradictory fashion, there is no reason to think about solutions in that same way.

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  1. lermit says:

    I find your piece as motivating as usual. The economics on this all get a bit confusing, now that it’s summer.

    Yet, it gets you close to a fundamental truth: garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). Thanks for sharing,

    .lermit (your cousin? yo mamma!)

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  2. lermit says:

    I find your piece as motivating as usual. The economics on this all get a bit confusing, now that it’s summer.

    Yet, it gets you close to a fundamental truth: garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). Thanks for sharing,

    .lermit (your cousin? yo mamma!)

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  3. egretman says:

    “new biofuels that may help save the planet.”

    How can any carbon based fuel save the planet? It might save my SUV. Not sure how it’s going to save the planet. You mean it might save our economies or our way of life?

    Or will it lead to continued distruction of our planet? Why would we assume these guys have any clue what the planet needs? Does anyone else?

    The headline could have been,

    Amyris, new biofuels may help destroy the planet.

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  4. egretman says:

    “new biofuels that may help save the planet.”

    How can any carbon based fuel save the planet? It might save my SUV. Not sure how it’s going to save the planet. You mean it might save our economies or our way of life?

    Or will it lead to continued distruction of our planet? Why would we assume these guys have any clue what the planet needs? Does anyone else?

    The headline could have been,

    Amyris, new biofuels may help destroy the planet.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  5. Andrew says:

    I recognize the freshness that comes from the “starting over” approach when looking at entrenched systems… I find myself much more cautious, however, about disregarding the careful evolution of problems that are so complex… If starting from a clean slate did not have significant hurdles in terms of cost, acceptance by the public, distribution, etc. it would have been done already. You see this in the case of biofuels/energy infrastructure, healthcare systems, etc.

    In short, looking at these systems with a fresh face may indeed clarify the goals we should be striving for, but it does not provide a short-cut to the end-all solution.

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  6. Andrew says:

    I recognize the freshness that comes from the “starting over” approach when looking at entrenched systems… I find myself much more cautious, however, about disregarding the careful evolution of problems that are so complex… If starting from a clean slate did not have significant hurdles in terms of cost, acceptance by the public, distribution, etc. it would have been done already. You see this in the case of biofuels/energy infrastructure, healthcare systems, etc.

    In short, looking at these systems with a fresh face may indeed clarify the goals we should be striving for, but it does not provide a short-cut to the end-all solution.

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  7. bbeam says:

    – replying to 3, Andrew

    I think it is frequently the case that people working inside the prevailing paradigm get much easier buy-in (both literal and figurative) from their fields. Also, incremental change is relatively easy compared to scrap it and rebuild.

    That said, I would prefer not to be the guinea pig for a brand new medical system, for instance. (However, I might be willing to do so for a new health INSURANCE system; I would probably prefer the devil I don’t know ….)

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  8. bbeam says:

    – replying to 3, Andrew

    I think it is frequently the case that people working inside the prevailing paradigm get much easier buy-in (both literal and figurative) from their fields. Also, incremental change is relatively easy compared to scrap it and rebuild.

    That said, I would prefer not to be the guinea pig for a brand new medical system, for instance. (However, I might be willing to do so for a new health INSURANCE system; I would probably prefer the devil I don’t know ….)

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0