In engineering, efficiency is a constant quest, but it sometimes works like an energy drink, producing a fast-acting gain at the expense of longer-term distress. The seductively simple notion of wanting to get the most out of least can have complications that should lead us to question whether its spontaneous application is always in our best interest.

Global supply networks cheaply and successfully manufacture vaccines in India, medical-grade gloves in Malaysia, and nasal swabs in Italy. Steady productions become fragile and incompatible when firms are unable to reproduce and repurpose their competencies during atypical times. Intensive care beds, usually planned and queued for efficiency, become unavailable when most needed. As with logistics, efficiency is so omnipresent in our lives that we seldom question its potential for gains.

The pursuit of efficiency, though, tends to assume good times, and when they don’t arrive, society at large pays the price. For example, cost-benefit arguments imprudently concluded that there was no need to rush the development of an Ebola vaccine before the 2014 West African outbreak because earlier incidences of the contagion were rare and quickly contained. Or consider how the notion of “efficient” risk dispersal across financial markets triggered the 2008 global economic meltdown. And so on—in the name of the supposed good of efficiency, apparently rigorous intents have produced rigidly overoptimized calamities.

As we think of shaping a more resilient and safer world beyond COVID-19, we need to imagine a path beyond efficiency. Instead of unthinkingly pursuing meaningless efficiencies, we should pursue meaningful inefficiencies, which is an idea from Eric Gordon, a scholar on civic media. If efficiencies are about meeting targets, inefficiencies—akin to speed bumps and stop signs on roads—can help create safety, trust, and accountability by providing a space in which Gordon says “a plurality of people can embrace uncertainty, within a clear set of rules, for a comfortable amount of time, before reaching judgment.”

Of course, no one likes plain old inefficiency, but that is not the same as meaningful inefficiency. Our experiences with slow websites, long service lines, overdue packages, and delayed flights cause legitimate frustration. But other seeming inefficiencies can become meaningful when people understand their fuller context and consequences. Cultural and biological evolution advance with built-in limiters (consider the redundancy of two kidneys). Banking systems maintain inefficient-seeming capital reserves for uncertain times and contingencies. Our immune systems are meaningfully inefficient in making adaptive trade-offs to reduce inflammation while defending organ function.

The upside of efficiencies—and our love affair with them—is obvious, but so, with a little pause for reflection, are its fouls and faults. The difference between medicine and poison can often be just the dose. And so is it with efficiency. The opening four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony are an emblem of musical efficiency, but the slowness that follows the stormy motif gives the creation its real vigor and vitality. Sometimes meaningful restraints can be as powerful as revolutions.

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Madhavan, Guru. “Efficiency.” Issues in Science and Technology ().