Thinking about waste

I am beholden to TS Holen for the wonderful photograph above, which he calls Ready-made Waste

To repeat what I said yesterday, as most of you probably know, I was born and brought up in Calcutta. A busy, vibrant city inhabited by millions of people. Who create a lot of waste.

While I lived there, I was fascinated by how this waste fed an entire human and economic ecosystem, the Indian and modern equivalent of the waste-pickers, scavengers, and rag-and-bone men. This ecosystem is not unique to Calcutta or even to my lifetime; Steven Johnson does a wonderful job of describing the way all this happened in Dickensian London in his book, The Ghost Map; if you haven’t read it, get yourself a copy today, it’s well worth a read. In fact all of Steven’s books are worth a read. Really.

My thanks to Rajib Singha for his composition above, Romancing the Raj: dung cakes drying on a wall in Bagbazar while a tram approaches

When I looked at waste in this context, one of the things that excited and astounded me was the vibrancy and sheer sustainability of the ecosystem around waste, as evinced by the way cowdung is mixed with straw, dried on walls and then used as cheap fuel in many parts of the world. Growing up amidst such practices taught me something: I learnt to respect waste and to recognise that people had livelihoods deeply intertwined with waste. Last year, I had the opportunity to walk around parts of Calcutta late one night, and experienced both joy as well as shock as I saw the ecosystem in action.

Over the years I’ve carried this learning into somewhat different contexts, particularly when it comes to project management and delivery. You see, I felt it was reasonable to consider all inefficiency as waste. As a consequence, when I observed an inefficient practice at work, I tried to identify the ecosystem participants for that waste, the people whose livelihoods depend on that waste. Because they were the ones most likely to push back against any change in work practices and processes. All projects are fundamentally about change, and unless such immune-system agents are identified and taken into account,  project failure is likely.

This is not some deep personal insight. Software developers, especially those who use design patterns, are usually extremely competent at analysing the as-is context from the viewpoint of problems and workarounds. What problems need to be solved. What workarounds exist today. Which inefficiencies have become enshrined in work practices. The developer then sets out to identify the root causes for the workarounds, to design more appropriate responses and to plan for sensible migration paths from the workarounds.

Sometimes the workarounds are so deeply embedded that resistance is extremely high and, as a result, the temptation to fossilise the workaround into the system is immense. Which is why software developers are heard to say things like “there’s nothing as permanent as a temporary fix”.

Which brings me to the crux of this post. Once you accept that inefficiency can be considered equivalent to waste, you can walk untrodden paths. Like the waste built into ways of marketing, selling and distributing digital content, ways that carry the habits of the analogue world, ways that exist primarily to feed the mouths of the ecosystem around that waste.

Music. Advertising. Newspapers. All marketed, sold, distributed with analogue overlays on digital processes. The kind of thinking that encourages people to design region coding for DVDs. [What customer value does that generate?]

Music. Advertising. Newspapers. Industries with waste built into their historical processes. Industries with ecosystems of people built around that waste, people with mouths to feed and bills to pay.

And now we have the cloud. Which is fundamentally about a new way of doing business, seeking to eradicate the waste that permeates most enterprise data centres. Overprovisioning is not a bad thing per se, but there’s overprovisioning and then there’s what’s been happening for a few decades, whole orders of magnitude off from sensible overprovisioning.

The cloud is about eradicating waste.

Waste that feeds a massive ecosystem.

A massive ecosystem that will rise up and seek to prevent the eradication of that waste.

We’ve already seen this happen in the music business; we’ve already seen this happen in advertising; we’re seeing this happen in newspapers. And now we will see this happen in cloud.

People have built immense business models around erstwhile waste, the organisations have themselves grown immense as a result, and now they wield immense political and financial power. So they know how to arbitrage the situation and ensure that such inefficiencies are protected by law, by regulation. Which is what has been happening in copyright and intellectual property. Witness the abominations of the Digital Economy Act, of ACTA, of Hadopi.

Unlike the waste pickers and scavengers of prior centuries, the 20th and 21st century waste pickers haven’t evolved, haven’t adapted, haven’t faded gracefully away. Because they’re powerful enough to freeze progress, to insist on keeping their particular wastes in place.

But there’s one problem.

A big problem.

We can’t afford the waste any more. No longer sustainable.

Which is where I think Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) comes in. VRM represents a way through this impasse, by placing the power where it should be: with the customer. It is the customer who has the highest motivation to eradicate waste in a system; yes, tools are necessary to help identify the waste and to deal with the waste.

The r-button or the relationship button, a key concept in VRM

One way of looking at VRM tools is that they will reduce human transactional latency by concentrating on the customer and the relationship first and on the transaction only as a consequence of that.

Doc Searls, the driving force behind VRM, has been a personal friend and mentor for many years now. This post was catalysed as a result of a recent conversation with him. The way advertising works now, the way we buy and sell, the way CRM systems operate, it’s all one-way. There’s a lot of inbuilt waste, waste that can be reduced, even annihilated, by giving customers the right voice, empowerment and tools. Which is really what VRM is about.

There’s a workshop to do with all this coming up next week, to be held at the Harvard Law School. People can contact Doc at dsearls AT, or on Twitter through @dsearls.

Make any sense? Let me know what you think.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about waste”

  1. Thanks for highlighting that inefficiency is indeed the equivalent of waste. It is one of the fundamental tenets underlying my IT Project Failures blog at ZDNet.

    It’s also worth considering that large failures take on an ethical aspect, specifically due to the extent of waste that results. Linking inefficiency, failure, waste, and ethics creates a broader context for understanding both the problem and potential solutions.

  2. I have to take issue with your equation of inefficiency with waste.

    The cow dung as a byproduct of keeping cattle is “waste”. Simply leaving it where it lies is not only distasteful but also “inefficient”, where as combining it with straw, drying it out and re-using it as fuel is a more “efficient” use of the “waste”.

    There are then a number of factors as to what form of fuel the end customer chooses to use, e.g. cow dung or propane. I’m not aware of any laws in Western Cities that prohibit the burning of cow dung, but that’s probably only because it would be unthinkable regardless of concerns for efficiency! We would miserably freeze in the dark before going that route. Instead there are biomass prototype projects using grants of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars! On the other hand I’d suspect that in Indian Cities that the use of cow dung depends upon neighbourhood, status and who might be visiting? Even if you were used to it and thought it sensible, you’d pay the extra price for propane as part of your heightened life style.

    There questions both of the practices that are unsustainable, and also the (cultural) values that are unsustainable.

  3. I learned some useful terminology in doing some self-study on industrial design for sustainability. Instead of the term “waste”, the term “byproduct” is used. With that perspective, a byproduct of a process is examined for its ability to be used as an input to another process, e.g. a process that gives off heat can be used to generate energy. The terminology helps to think about things differently.

Let me know what you think