Humans are very good at making most processes 99% efficient. It’s the last 1% that’s hard to figure out. The last 1% of the job takes the most effort, causes the most stress, costs the most money and produces the most waste.
Here are a few examples of what I mean.
For example, humans invented the internet. Cities, countries, even different continents can connect and share incredible amounts of information constantly. This is an example of what I mean by a process that is 99% efficient. Maybe even more than 99% efficient.
And yet, connecting that vast network to the computer in my apartment can be painfully difficult. That is an example of what I mean by “the last 1%.” The telephone pole just outside my building has wires that, if properly connected, will get me on the internet. It’s only metres away from me. And yet, it took months for Bell to finally figure out how to connect my internet properly because the wires in my apartment building are messed up. (It’s still somewhat messed up, although not as messed up as before.)
Social media and the Vancouver riot
Another interesting example is the case of the Vancouver riot: Police are pretty efficient at catching and taking people away to be processed by the justice system. When the police are looking for you, generally speaking, they catch you. (Bounty hunters in the States are even better.) The inefficient part of this process is finding and identifying people who break the law. When my van was broken into, two summers ago, the police took my information, but really, there was nothing they could do. They just don’t have eyes and ears everywhere. They can’t always be watching, and so some criminals get away with breaking into my van and stealing the GPS.
The recent Vancouver riot is a clear example of what happens when this inefficiency is taken away. More than 100 people were arrested by Vancouver police as a result of the use of mobile phones during the riot. Some have even suggested that the increase in use of mobile phones with cameras have caused a decrease in the rate of crime generally.
It turns out that in some cases it might not be such a bad thing that Big Brother is watching.
“Tea, Earl Grey, hot”
Consider the case of food distribution. Farms are very good at efficiently producing food. We’re pretty good at putting that food on trucks and getting them to grocery stores without losing very much in the process. It’s the last step, at the grocery stores themselves, where the efficiency drops dramatically. If you go behind any supermarket, there are always dumpsters full of expired produce, eggs that break, meat that goes bad.
Imagine if your house had a Star-Trek style replicator, where you pushed a button and whoosh, a machine produced the food you like best, one “food pixel” at a time, heated by a laser beam and drawn from a food printer cartridge. These could be frozen and kept indefinitely. No more spilling—no more waste. No more trying to choose the best tomato or the ripest avocado. Just buy a cartridge of the right stuff, and away you go.
This isn’t even sci-fi anymore. 3D food printers exist, although they’re really expensive. We could have incredible control over the efficiency of food production and the consistency in quality in food with such a system. We could give consumers exacting control over portion size and nutritional completeness. In situations where food aid is required, such a system would have great benefits as well.
I imagine logging on to the iTunes Food Store, syncing my recipes with my replicator and then receiving a notification on my iPhone when dinner is done printing.
Trying to park my car
Having moved to the island of Montréal two years ago, one of the most frustrating things for me was trying to park my vehicle. Here in Montréal, people will just bring their car to a stop on a major thoroughfare and turn their reverse lights on. If they do this in front of you, it’s because they want to park on the side of the road and need to back into their spot. They expect you to just go around them.
Parking is not just a problem in Montréal. Cars are wonderfully efficient at getting you from point A to somewhere within about 500 metres of point B. To actually get to point B, you usually have to backtrack a bit, circle the area for 15 minutes, find a spot, then discover that the spot is only available for 20 minutes at a time anyway, and even when you do find a spot to park (usually for a price) you have to walk a good while to get where you’re actually going. Then you have to remember where you parked, and hope that no one breaks into your vehicle to steal your stuff while you’re gone.
Airports are a prime example of this. They have officers at the entrances to airports whose only job is to make sure that people don’t just park their car in front of the door leading to “domestic departures.” You’re allowed to stop your car, pull your stuff out, kiss your loved one and then drive off. That’s all. If you’re going to park the car, there’s a huge inefficiency of the other person having to wait for you while you park it, and if you don’t want to have to bother with that, you have to either get a friend to go out of her way to help you, or you have to hire a taxi at great cost to yourself.
In response to this problem, I’m somewhat intrigued by Google’s driverless car project. I don’t think that this will solve the problem I have outlined in its entirety (even if this project succeeds), but I would be very happy to see the day where I can get in my car, tell it my destination, jump out when I’m in front of the building I’m going to and watch it drive off to find a parking spot on its own.
|Process||Efficient part||Inefficient part||Solution|
|Internet connexion||Communication between large centres||The last few metres from the telephone pole to the back of your computer||Wireless internet|
|Crime investigation||Arrest and processing of already-identified suspects||Identification of criminals||Camera phones + Facebook|
|Food distribution||Mass production, distribution to retail venues||Sales and consumption||3D food printers|
|Automotive transport||Travelling, especially long distances||Parking||Driverless parking|
|Table 1. Examples of completion inefficiencies|