By Luke Yates

The title of this blog post is a line that captured my attention while reading the recently published book, Range, by David Epstein. It’s a book about the merits of taking a generalist approach to problem solving which got me thinking about measures of efficiency and the importance of human creativity. Given increasing over-population, limited resources and a global ecosystem suffering unprecedented losses, what argument could there be for cultivating inefficiency?

The rise of automation

Clearly, it is imperative that we use our natural resources efficiently, and we are getting better at this. Through urbanisation, technological innovation, division of labour and large-scale industrialisation, we now supply goods and services to more people using less inputs per production unit than ever before. This does not mean we are consuming less resources overall; paradoxically, increased efficiency can lead to lower prices and an increase in demand. In any case, the developed capacity to produce goods efficiently is critical and at the leading edge of our efficiency gains is automation, the revolution of machine learning technologies that are disrupting traditional employment and driving towards zero, the marginal cost of goods and services.

The kind and the wicked

Is it inevitable that we lose our jobs to automation and live on a universal income? Well, humans are remarkably inefficient, and this gives us a real edge over automated processes. What do I mean by this? The usual metrics of efficiency assume that the desired output of a process is both known and measurable. This is true in so-called kind environments, where progress towards goals can be measured, and feedback can be given. The result is the creation of a learning environment where experience improves performance, and humans thrive in these settings. Indeed, we are so successful that our machines perform many tasks much better than us – automation is (indeed) a human achievement. 

However, the most challenging problems that humanity faces are not so kind. Problems such as climate change and global poverty have been dubbed as wicked or even super-wicked (yes, that’s very bad).  Wicked problems are characterised as: having no definitive formulation; having complex interdependencies; each unique; and each unsolvable – only improvable. How do we work on problems like this?

Now a better name for human inefficiency, might be creativity. Humans have diverse interests, competing goals, and take multiple levels of perspective.  We import ideas between our various endeavours, are intrinsically motivated, and self-directed. Unfortunately, these creative qualities are underutilised because we live in a tyranny of metrics which evaluate our performance (and underpin our wages) as if we lived in a kind world. But wicked problems cannot be addressed with machine-like performance. If we continue to allocate resources using business-as-usual metrics, we will only support those who can promise to perform in kind and narrow contexts. This leads to ever increasing specialisation, silos of thought and a reluctance to take risks.

It’s not that specialisation or expert systems are a bad thing. On the contrary, the coupling of specialist skills with broader strategic capacities is a strong combination. For example, in 1997, the grand chess master, Garry Kasparov, was beaten by an artificial intelligence (AI) system for the first time, and computers have dominated the game since this time. However, human players working together with AI, can consistently win against standalone artificial systems.

We have successfully incentivised specialisation for a long time, and we can celebrate the fruits of this labour. But we no longer need to focus on being machine-like ourselves; we have a more strategic and creative role to play. There is an immense landscape of possible strategies that we could apply to our wicked problems; the pressing efficiency question is: How do we search for them? 

Incentivising creativity

The question of how to foster a creative workplace is certainly not new. For decades, technology companies have sought to harness the creative potential of their employees by creating a culture of ‘fail and fail fast’. This acknowledges the nature of creative exploration; that most ideas are failures and the best way to find the good ones is to search, try, fail and search again.

It turns out that our intuition about how fun and satisfying it would be to work in a creative workplace can be quite different from the reality. Bosses need to be ruthless in killing off bad ideas and many of the good ones too. It takes a robust and resilient sense of self to tolerate repeated failure and the inevitable rejection of one’s own ideas.  The creation of a supportive work culture is vital. At times, even great ideas will need to be abandoned if we are to avoid the lure of the sunken cost fallacy

All this amounts to the sharing of risk. To encourage individuals or groups to efficiently explore new solutions, the risk of failure needs to be collectively absorbed. This could liberate individual creativity, but it is not obvious how to resolve the problem of personal accountability. What are the right metrics of performance? Many people object to the notion of a universal income because they (erroneously) believe that most other people are lazier than they are. Is it possible that our strong aversion to support a minority of so-called free-riders is thwarting our collective efforts to address our most pressing problems?

A lifetime of work spent exploring a new theory seems like a slow process, but millions of theories being explored simultaneously by a generation of people, would enable a rapid exploration of a vast and complex search space. Maybe our metrics of performance are so tyrannous that they suppress our most useful contributions and synergies.


I’ll leave you with a manifesto of sorts:

Let the machines become more specialised. May they perform mundane and technical tasks better than we ever have. May we work with these technologies as we (re)ignite our creative capacities. Let us innovate, decoupling our incomes from ineffective metrics, while we work to increasingly decouple our economic activity from natural ecosystems. The provision of services, to each other, is virtually unlimited, providing a means to meet our many human needs in a resource-efficient manner. To measure our true efficiency, we need to take the long view. Successes and breakthroughs have high variance yet pay good dividends to society once realised. To efficiently explore the vast landscape of possibility we need to cultivate and celebrate our small-scale inefficiencies – or rather, our natural curiosity and creative potential.

*All images are sourced from http://www.pixabay.com and licensed for free commercial use.

All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.


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