Hurricane Irene, the massive storm that hit the U.S. east coast in late August, gave me a lot of time to think (in the dark). The quiet time helped bring to mind several important dMASS issues that I will discuss below and in upcoming postings. The first issue concerns the difference between the concepts of efficiency and dMASS.
Improving efficiency is about minimizing the amount of energy used to yield a given amount of useful work (in physics terms, reducing the amount of entropy resulting from some activity). dMASS, on the other hand is about improving the performance of all resources (fuels and materials); it’s about reducing the resource mass needed to deliver a given amount of wealth-producing value from some activity or product use.
If the distinction seems elusive consider this: no products, tools, or resources have intrinsic value to people. Their perceived value is derived from the actual benefits they deliver to people who buy or use them. All material products are really benefit delivery mechanisms in much the same way that a pill or an IV is a delivery mechanism for a health benefit, or a cup is a delivery mechanism for nutrition. But over time we come to associate, even confuse, products with their benefits. The products become symbols of the benefits, so we covet them. But the products and benefits are not the same.
Understanding products in this way allows us to see that it is the benefit delivered that counts, not the mass or resources needed to deliver it. In a resource constrained world, every successful business needs to focus on measuring the ultimate benefits delivered, as well as reducing the total mass of all resources (fuels, water, and materials) required to deliver those benefits.
So when we talk about dMASS, we are talking about activities or innovations that improve a simple ratio between benefits and resources. An increase in performance comes about by either increasing benefits or reducing resources:
On the other hand, when measuring efficiency we are only interested in work done, whether or not that work is useful. You can improve the efficiency of a cigarette factory, a crystal meth lab, or a poison gas plant, but you probably haven't contributed to our individual or common wealth. In fact by making these things more efficient and cheaper, you are probably reducing total wealth.
There is another difference between dMASS and efficiency. Efficiency can always be achieved by minimizing energy inputs. But minimizing energy isn't always a dMASS activity because it isn't always the best way to achieve a real benefit. For example, let’s return to our hurricane. From an economic efficiency perspective, emergency preparedness for storms isn't a good idea. Emergencies don't happen frequently, so most of the time the resources we use to respond to emergencies aren't really needed. Investing in them seems inefficient. All redundancies are technically inefficient. But highly efficient systems can be the most vulnerable to failure or other risks than ones with seemingly inefficient redundancies. When one thing goes wrong, the most efficient systems break down like a chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. Redundant systems, like the human body, keep chugging along when lots of things go wrong because they have redundancies.
Adaptive behavior requires available alternatives and standby response capabilities. dMASS performance requires balancing reliability and sustainability with resource reduction. A responsible amount of redundancy to improve the reliability of life support systems and to protect public safety during a storm is a good investment. So is investing some resources in post-disaster response. Because people are the ultimate generators of wealth, activities aimed at reducing the amount of time that healthy people need to spend surviving and recovering from storms like Irene are usually wise investments.