1975 volume 7(8) pages 921 – 939

Cite as:
Goldberg M A, 1975, "On the inefficiency of being efficient" Environment and Planning A 7(8) 921 – 939

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On the inefficiency of being efficient

M A Goldberg

Received 23 January 1975, in revised form 8 July 1975

Abstract. Decisionmaking in the industrialized nations of the western world increasingly can be characterized by its scale and speed of implementation. Another facet of decisionmaking is the narrowness with which problems are defined and the equally narrow range of alternatives sought for solution. This paper documents these elements of decisions and also sketches out a number of scenarios where such an approach has led to unexpected, and often undesirable, consequences.

An alternative view of complex decisions, based on these scenarios, is developed. It relies heavily not on optimization as its pivotal criterion but rather upon the persistence of the decisionmaking unit, which is ultimately our society. Examples are presented which illustrate the counterproductive nature of many optimizing solutions. The argument is made that in an uncertain world, such as the one in which we live, optimizing approaches to decisions cannot succeed in the longer run because their assumptions about the constancy of our world do not hold up. Accordingly, a more flexible framework is suggested which values the complexity and uncertainty of the socioecological systems within which we must operate. The stability of these systems is seen to be a critical consideration of decisions, and several aspects of stability are presented which have been overlooked in the past.

The paper is concluded with a number of points which it is argued should be explicitly accounted for in future decisionmaking frameworks. Among the points stressed are: the desirability of making small scale decisions and implementing them slowly; the need to acknowledge the limits of what is knowable and thus the role of uncertainty; the virtues of maintaining a diversity of components in our socioecological systems; and finally the need to keep decision options open.

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