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The inefficiency gain

By Joel Bevin - posted Tuesday, 30 December 2008

You can’t escape them. Through gritted teeth you shuffle through the gym’s slow revolving door. In rush hour you puzzle as four sets of traffic sit motionless at a deserted intersection. At work you verge on violent as soapboxes dominate the 9am meeting. And on the phone to the bank, you begin to regret all those years of human communication which have resulted in an accent which proves irreconcilable with the computer-generated tone on the other end.

Daily situations, that by tweaking slightly, create a faster, better and more efficient world.

Efficiency; that annoying and occasionally feared, buzzword. Success is measured by it and your ability to cram more into life depends on it. But can we overdose on efficiency? Can the world be too fluid and clean?


At the exit to the Flinders Street train station in Melbourne, foot traffic moves in three directions. The street is cut by people validating their tickets and escaping gates that randomly snap shut with menace. A grey-clad army of foot soldiers reluctantly climb the stairs to face another air-conditioned day. And a third stream walks possessively up the street.

For the past few months I have hopped around like a boxer before a fight as I try to switch between these pace-setters, a tactic used by drivers sitting in traffic who view an ambulance speeding past as an opportunity to follow the siren and enjoy a speedy, and ironically safe, journey home. But recently I succumbed and threw in the sweaty towel, joining the masses in a slow, inefficient plod. There were occasional attempts, however, to defy the system. Some people would try and slide up the side of this chaos like a swimmer challenging their outer-lane draw while others would simply tilt their umbrella to the horizontal and force their way through with repeated bayonet-like thrusts.

Every morning I follow the predictable, and most direct (naturally), route to work and wonder how you might improve this disarray and create an efficiency gain for all involved. Could you divert the stairs to exit at a different point? Or maybe the validation machines could operate in unison with the pedestrian lights. And, a solution I put down to that afternoon’s training course (Optimising Team Performance), a pedestrian rulebook complete with L-plates.

But what do you actually gain by correcting inefficiencies? You have more time to relax and enjoy the important things by cutting out wasted time spent in lines and on the phone. However, these gains are quickly absorbed into a new benchmark which requires further efficiency to put you back in front. Think about how you are still broke at the end of each fortnight despite the fact your salary has come along way since living it up when you were 16 on the minimum wage.

These new standards of efficiency are not only recognised at a personal level, they are built into workplace expectations where the pressure to do things quicker and better than before, is unrelenting.

While the world relies on efficiency to evolve, there is the risk that a one-off and soon forgotten gain might damage social cultures built on human trial and error, not formulaic analysis.


A friend recently returned from Singapore with glowing reports of a city that thrives on law and order aimed at generating harmony through robotic uniformity. The streets are clean, you feel comfortable walking the city at any time of day, and the people are always friendly. Clean, comfortable, friendly - sounds like an artificial scene from The Truman Show. My memory of flapping hens escaping a sidewalk restaurant - a display which sealed the dinner venue that night - may one day sadly be replaced with an experience where the only hens to be found are compacted into feathered, space-saving squares and stuffed in whitegoods.

Without inefficiency where would the mad and completely fitting sound of yellow New York cabs be? Lost to a brilliant city planner who promised a design that would reduce congestion, improve drive-time, and ultimately lead to the extinction of the orchestral beeping of horns.

And how many people truly believe that the time saved by taking the Autostrade del Sole highway from Rome to Naples would make up for the historic experience of winding down the Italian coast through the playground of the Roman emperors.

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A shorter version of this article was published in Melbourne's mX magazine on December 22, 2008.

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About the Author

Joel currently lives in Melbourne and works in consulting on social trends and demographics. He is studying his Masters in International Relations and Trade. He runs two websites: where he writes about people and the world and where he interviews people about themselves and the world.

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