Saturday, February 03, 2024

Seeking Scalable Solutions in Systems

I started a little writing and cognition experiment which involves writing down a thought a day.  We have about 6000 thoughts every day.  A few are possibly worth capturing. I am not bothering with defining what's truly worth sharing -- this is a public blog after all -- but I suspect there will be some informal filtering in the absence of a clearly defined strategic intent. 

Today's thought, or train of thoughts started when I opened a book and read a passage about the role of digital technology in making trash collection more efficient with sensors that detect when a trash bin is full.  In principle, this creates efficiencies by allowing trash collection services to be more targeted and avoid wasting time, fuel, etc.. on trash bins that are empty or not full enough for pick up. 

The main issue I had with this approach is that it attempts to address a problem downstream, after the trash has already been generated. It does nothing to reduce the amount of trash in the first place.  The book I had opened is from 2016, so already potentially outdated.  I looked up more recent technology solutions associated with waste management and found solutions that are looking more broadly and addressing a combination of issues related to waste management.  Some cities have established weight-based or volume-based billing for trash pickup, which should encourage waste reduction (and potentially create illegal dumping issue).  A combination of sensor technology and AI can now automatically sort trash for recycling purposes.  

Solutions that address a single node within a system could be very successful in addressing the problem at that node yet fail to address the broader issue or even displace the issue to other nodes in the system.  So, part of the solution would be to look at the whole system.  Given that ultimately, everything is connected to everything else, what is the most appropriate scope of the waste management system.  At what point is the scope too broad?  What is the trash that creates the most challenges?  Is it plastics?  How do we reduce plastics in trash?  That probably requires interventions upstream, in the production of items that result in plastic trash. How do we determine the scope of a system?

The same thought applies in international development projects.  These projects typically address a small slice of a problem within a node in a complex system.  

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