Using Complex Tools to Create Simple Systems
My work over the years has evolved to become mostly systems design in the construction field. It occurred to me thanks to Dr. Joseph Tainter: The collapse of Complex Societies, that my subconscious focus has always be to create the least complex systems possible that will get the job done. And after listening to a great interview Oct. 1, 2014 on McAlvany Weekly Commentary with Tainter, it further occurred to me that I have been using highly complex tools to attempt to create these simple systems.
It might be instructive to share experiences, since we are all system designers, and focus on durability and simplicity of the end product. And at the same time to acknowledge the complexity and sophistication of the tools and supplies that we employ to create these durable systems.
I would suggest that durability and simplicity go hand in hand. The fewer the moving parts generally means less possibility of breakdowns. Quality of materials and system inputs also advances durability. I am already noticing a trend toward declining quality in construction materials and tools.
One of my current projects is a rainwater catchment system. I’ve installed probably 30 or 40 over the years but each time I learn a little more. I have come to use a leaf guard device where the water exits the gutter. It has sloped screening which keeps leaves and debris from entering the pvc pipe. Also, despite more complex devices I like to use a “poor man’s” first flush system that diverts the first 2% of the water into a diversion tube before the water flows toward the collection tank. http://web.mit.edu/watsan/Docs/Student%20Theses/Rwanda/KellyDoyleThesis_Final.pdf This system requires that the operator would open a valve after the rain to drain out the contents of the pipe that catches the first wash of the roof. This simple maintenance procedure encourages inspection of the system which has very few points of vulnerability. With our tanks filling off a barn 20′ elevation above our house, we have the failsafe option of gravity flow to gain minimal water pressure without a pump. I see no reason why this system will not last for 50 years barring a catastrophic event.
There are a number of complex tools with a shorter lifespan that I used to create this simple system. To name a few: Computer for research; Tractor for moving dirt and sand and creating the base for the tanks; miscellaneous construction tools such as PVC saws, tin snips and rivet guns.
Also there are components currently available through complex supply chains such as water tanks; pvc pipe and fittings; sand and fill material; pumps; electric wire;metal gutter; etc. that were shipped to the job site.
In the event of a dislocation (SHTF event) many of these materials and tools will become scarce, expensive, and in some cases not available, but my rainwater system can function for many years as a simple system.
Back in the late 70s, I was a manager with Taco Bell. Their philosophy was KISS – Keep It Simple, Sustainably. The had mechanical, not computerized, cash registers, and a simple gas-fired steam warming area and a simple gas-fired stove. Simple ingredients.
Because of this, at that time, while a McDonald's franchise could cost upwards of one million dollars, a Taco Bell franchise cost about $250K.
There is a lot to learn from their example. First, I think that it's fantastic that they did not suffer from "menu creep" where they tried to have more and more choices. I'm not so sure they have followed that path todat: witness the Doritos Locos Taco (but it increased their revenues by 30%, so who knows.) When the power went down, they could still ring up sales. Most of the time they could still cook, unless the natural gas supply was affected. One of the ways they made sure they could feed you was the universally easy-to-get ingredients: there were lots of places to get cheddar cheese, dried pinto beans, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and ground beef from local vendors. They processed things on site. The same corn or flour tortilla could be fried into various shapes at the store–anything from taco or tostada shells to cinnamon crispas for dessert–avoiding breakage on the way and increasing freshness.
How can we apply this?
The equivalent of "menu creep" is mission creep. You start out wanting to add a bed of kale to your garden and end up ordering that and other things that caught your eye, with no idea where or when to plant it. You start out wanting to add screens to your windows and end up replacing the windows, and then painting the house to match. You start out wanting to learn to sew or do woodworking and end up with a room full of unfinished projects.
The cure for mission creep it simple. Do one small thing at a time, and do it well.
Our next lesson is to look at all systems with an eye to how they would work if electric power was interrupted. Would it shut you down? Can you engineer things so you are not dependent on the power company?
As for food, can you get inexpensive ingredients easily from local vendors? Can you avoid the cost and staleness of preprocessed foods? I'm currently making a batch of homemade pizza sauce from my garden's ingredients: you cannot get more local or fresh than that.
Just some food – for thought. 🙂
I am working every day on a small homestead and my primary goal is to get it to yield as much food as it can sustainably (read: without off site inputs). I read a lot about permaculture and I strongly believe that a future based on permaculture principles is about the best we can hope for. I would love to be able to get an excavator out here and rework my property with EPDM-lined ponds, swales and other earthworks….complex processes to yield simple systems. However, given the immediacy of what we face and the limited resources I have at my disposal I have focused instead on planting as many trees as I can squeeze in working with a shovel, compost and mulch from trees I had chipped this spring (another complex system). I only integrate livestock that I can feed on-site (or with hyper-local resources) and annuals that I can reproduce by saving seed. I might add goats soon which I can't sustain onsite, but with the understanding that if I'm unable to obtain feed for them, they will serve as an emergency source of meat.
I do have some complex systems on site including solar-electric fencing, solar panels for the house and a hand pump well, but none of them are deployed at this point as I don't need them yet. I see those as temporary transition tools to a simpler future. They will buy me time to figure out more permanent solutions to things like refrigeration/food preservation, fencing and water. I think systems like the water catchment you describe are a terrific investment and should be made now while the tools and equipment needed are still available. We need to all be looking towards a much more resource limited future. What can you do today to make tomorrow easier? What tools should you buy now to tuck away incase they aren't available when you need them? What surplus can you generate to trade with and who is a trustworthy counter party with something to offer in exchange?
From my side, I have gone from being an aid/ development worker with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) based overseas to being a consultant working on how to make water and sanitation systems (e.g. water supply system) more resilient to natural hazard events (e.g. flooding, earthquake etc.). I went from being hands-on technical/ local level to 'global' technical coordination. I have seen many 'systems' fail, and trying to analyse why they failed (including my own failures) I started putting these in a structure. On my last 'fixed' job I wrote a guideline on resilience of water and sanitation systems, and I consolidated this into an overview shown below. I have used this overview for setting up and evaluating water and sanitation and logistics systems, and in the last years for looking at the vulnerabilities of systems. It is generic, but when I've seen systems 'not work', I have always been able to relate it to one of the elements below. In simpler systems not all elements will be relevant, but sometimes they are needed (and I've seen quite some failures because some of these elements were overlooked…)
For the original source and a one-page overview which gives examples of what these could be with a 'WASH-system' see page 25 (49 in doc) in: http://www.preventionweb.net/files/25105_disasterriskreductionandwashcompreh.pdf
I'm now, as many in the PeakProsperity community, living in two worlds, working as consultant in the 'old world', and trying to raise the level of self-sufficiency and resilience of my family in a farm in Sweden. While the worlds are very different, there is actually quite some overlap, and I use the same overview to check everything I do here in Sweden; what is needed for what I want to achieve, what could knock elements of the system out, and what can I do to reduce the risks to the systems.
Coming back to the discussion earlier; elements linked to vulnerability: systems that are complicated, centralised, interdependent. Systems that dependence on external (i.e. off-site) tools, construction materials, consumables, knowledge, (political) goodwill. Organisational structure is important, redundancy of hard- and soft-ware is critical. In addition to this, context is as important as the system itself; always try to look at things one or two levels above what you think is relevant to the system. It is often surprising what is found…
I appreciate your contribution to this discussion. I really hope to hear from a diverse group on their own struggles and successes with systems design, and especially with a focus on simplicity. I agree with you that vulnerability is linked to "complicated, centralized, and interdependent" system structure.
Thank you for your work for Medicines Sans Frontieries.
A deadline meant that I didn't get back to this post earlier, so a delayed answer.
Thank you for your kind words. Interesting, you are the first person to thank me for the work I did for MSF. I say 'interesting' as I never considered that any gratitude was due. For myself, I feel very privileged to have been able to work in the humanitarian sector, it does leave an imprint (both positive and negative) and it has often been a fascinating (and at times very frustrating) time I would not want to have been without. 'News' is often very different (and strangely calm and boring) when you're 'in' it from when you're 'outside of it'.
On a higher level, the humanitarian sector is a strange beast. One of it's reasons for 'being' is dysfunctional/ abusive power systems and poorly guided ideologies, yet it is also these that allow it to function and thrive. For those in power the humanitarian sector is often a tool and a substitution, and an extension to project influence, power, and indirect support. The sector for its part often happily plays that part of the circus (yet denounces certain elements of it). While the sector often does provide necessary assistance to (groups of) individuals, on a higher level it can potentially prolong and reinforce the issues it tries to address. It is absolutely a cog in the complex machinery that has become our global society. I assume modern human society has a tendency to evolve toward complexity, disconnection of root values, and schizofrenic tendencies. The race to the top of the card house goes on…
Ramblings of a confused mind…
It's good to see this topic emerge. Yes, uncompensated complexity can be the death of systems; I've seen it many times in software systems.
A useful tool for analyzing systems is the Systems Dynamics modeling language (which was used in the Limits to Growth project). I've found a nice interactive tutorial at http://beyondconnectingthedots.com/. (Gene Bellinger, one of the authors, is dedicated to spreading knowledge about this.
A short video I found very insightful: http://cognitive-edge.com/library/more/video/introduction-to-the-cynefin-framework/. It strengthened my (already strong) conviction that administration and the administrator's mindset will be one of the nails in the coffin of our society. Too much attention to petty detail makes one lose the big picture… Obviously I'm completely objective in this (as certain administrators who I drove into despair can testify; I don't align to a worldview that rules trump common sense; if one has a brain, one has to at least attempt to use it… ).
Another jewel of Dave Snowden on 'Risk and resilience': http://cognitive-edge.com/library/more/video/risk-resilience/
You can often not understand that risk levels are rising unless you have some kind of 'dashboard' that measures indicators that provide this information. Sometimes it's pretty obvious; e.g. deforestation and strong rains upstream indicate a risk of flooding. Sometimes it's surprising; my (Belgian) wife was with MSF in Rwanda in 1994 just before 'the events' started, she said that one of the first indicators that things were going haywire was that the price of beer suddenly spiked; transporters apparently knew something was fishy… On hindsight it seems quite obvious, but when you're in it?
As I'm pretty illiterate with regard to issues that concern finance/ economy and energy demand and supply, PeakProsperity is my dashboard for these types of risks and trends (and much more besides that). Interesting times we live in…
Dear Chris Martenson,
I just want to mention two basic books about complexity I learned much from. Both do not treat complexity in economic systems respectively economy as a complex system:
Complexity: A Guided Tour
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press (September 1, 2011)
Complexity: A Philosophical Overview
Hardcover: 219 pages
Publisher: Transaction Publishers (June 1, 1998)