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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.