A comprehensive view of system performance

The perennial human interest in keeping a check on the costs of doing what we do is hardly surprising. In fact, the significance of this as an organising principle extends well beyond our own species: it plays an important role in the processes of biological evolution, where the viability of any organism depends on maintaining a sufficient degree of what we might call “energetic leeway” to weather the range of environmental variation encountered. In the human realm, it manifests in a perhaps more mundane way in the disinclination that people tend to have for working harder than necessary to do what they want to do—if there’s an easier way of satisfying our needs and desires, we tend on the whole to be good at finding it. Even so, it’s quite apparent that the human story is not one that can be reduced to the interplay of physical and environmental factors. Our needs and desires arise as psycho-cultural phenomena. They are meaningful for us—we are aware of them, and in turn shape them through aware being. The developmental psychologist William Perry is reputed to have expressed the centrality of this to who and how we are with an aphorism along the lines of “Organisms organize; what human organisms organize is meaning.” Note 1

In the introductory post in this series, I made brief mention of Peter Checkland’s positioning of efficiency in his Soft Systems Methodology as just one of three criteria necessary for measuring the performance of notional human activity systems. The view of humans as “organisers of meaning” provides important context for why Checkland’s approach is so insightful. In Soft Systems Methodology, to comprehensively assess performance in carrying out a given transformation, we need to attend not only to questions of minimum or acceptable resource use, but also to questions of efficacy—success in producing the intended outcome of the transformation—and effectiveness—success in achieving the transformation’s higher-order purpose.[3]  The first of these relates to a system’s performance in its own right—can the parts actually produce functional behaviour? The second relates to the system’s performance in its broader environmental context—does it work as part of an encompassing whole? We can of course go further than this—others have proposed that a genuinely comprehensive assessment of performance in systems of human activity would explicitly embrace a wider sweep of criteria, including ethical, aesthetic and spiritual considerations (see [5] for instance). Nonetheless, Checkland’s model makes clear that efficiency on its own tells us little. It relates only to the technical aspects of how we do something—it doesn’t address the superordinate questions of what we elect to do amongst the technically feasible options available to us, or of why we should do it in the first place.

The significance of this might be better appreciated with a concrete example—I’ll draw on one with direct bearing on the theme of the inquiry: the use of wind turbines to generate electricity. Let’s say we’re interested in a specific wind generation proposal—that is, the use of selected equipment at a given location to transform the mechanical energy associated with the bulk motion of an air mass to electrical energy. What counts as a relevant efficiency definition depends on our interests. Perhaps we’re interested in assessing the proposed site relative to another, or one turbine design relative to another for the particular location. In each instance, we would need to establish an appropriate definition of efficiency, with a corresponding statement of the boundaries to be taken into account. But moreover, to discuss efficiency in a meaningful way, we need to know what the wind farm is expected to do—we need to take into account the basis for efficacy. For instance, what are the desired outputs from the facility? If it’s a commercial operation, then this may principally rest on achieving an acceptable return on financial investment. In assessing efficiency, the resources that we’re interested in minimising in this case would take a particular form. If the facility is to provide electricity for a remote settlement—say an Antarctic research station—then reliability of supply may be the governing efficacy criterion, and the resources to be minimised in assessing efficiency would vary accordingly. While the engineer’s efficiency of wind energy input to electrical energy output may be relevant in both cases, it’s likely to be a subsidiary part of the system-specific efficiency assessment.

In both cases though—i.e. commercial grid-connected wind farm, or extreme-duty remote area power supply—efficacy must itself be considered in the context of effectiveness, if what we deem to be an efficacious system is to serve us well. In the commercial case, wind-generated electricity is typically sold in a market situation, where price is determined by some combination of regulatory policy and supply-demand dynamics. A wind farm may be capable of delivering a certain number of kilowatt-hours of electricity to the grid over its lifetime, and it may be capable of doing so with overall operating costs competitive with comparable facilities. But if the electricity cannot be dispatched at times well matched to market demand, then it may not be capable of realising sufficient revenue. The ongoing debate (and the parallel action research program being conducted around the world) about the consequences of intermittency associated with wind- and solar PV-generated electricity rests in large part on different understandings of the relationship between efficacy and effectiveness. A wind farm owner and operator on the one hand and the technical managers of the overall electricity supply system may have very different views of the effectiveness of a wind farm that performs right on specification—each is motivated by different purposes, different views of what it means for a wind farm to be an effective part of the broader electricity system, and so each will likely have differing view in relation to the adequacy of what the wind farm actually does.

Similarly with the case of the remote area power supply: consider how scientists and support personnel living and working at an Antarctic research station might view effectiveness differently from bureaucrats responsible for administering a government research program, and the implications this might have for understandings of efficacy. For one group, budgetary considerations might form the predominant environmental context within which to determine the proposed system’s purpose, while for the other, impacts on the workload balance between primary research and infrastructure maintenance might take priority—i.e. the environmental context for the proposed system may be dominated by its impact on the station’s scientific output. We see here how these performance criteria are linked with differing worldviews, and their associated values. A consequence of this is that the determination of what should count as the appropriate measure of efficiency cannot be made outside of broader questions of function and purpose. The question of what to take into account in measuring efficiency is not simply a technical issue—it requires that we consider what we want to do, and why we want to do it.

This broader view has a very practical side to it—in fact, it has the potential to radically alter the calculated efficiency associated with a given transformation. A classic example of this—often recounted by my friend and colleague Frank Fisher: see for instance his classic article ‘The Myth of the Efficient Car’ [6]—relates to the engineer’s view of automobile efficiency. An engineer might tell you that a passenger car’s efficiency in converting chemical energy associated with its fuel to useful transport work is something in the order of 15 percent. This implicitly assumes, though, that we consider moving a car from point A to point B, rather than moving the car’s occupants from point A to point B, as “useful”. The vast majority of the work done by a car typically involves moving the car itself.

Were we in fact to determine, for instance, that a particular vehicle operates with an efficiency of 15 percent over the driving cycle for a particular trip, we would have established nothing particularly noteworthy about that vehicle itself. In order to make that figure meaningful, we would need to place it in the context of other ways of achieving the same function, and for that we would in turn need to know something of the purpose underlying the act of traveling itself. We could compare performance for this vehicle with a different model from the same manufacturer, or with an equivalent model from another car maker. We’d then get a useful picture of its performance—one on which we could make a purchasing decision for instance. But we’d still know little about the vehicle’s performance in what we might call “ultimate efficiency terms” i.e. compared with other means of traveling between two places. And furthermore, the perceived need for the travel in the first place would remain unexamined. If we can make the same trip by other means, say on foot, by bicycle or by public transport, and if that would serve the same function as traveling by car, then we can in principle make a direct comparison of the energy used by each means (and indeed of the respective energy efficiencies involved). For the record, in terms of both energy use—either direct fuel use for the specific trip, or full lifecycle energy use—and efficiency, we’d almost certainly find that the bicycle’s performance would come out ahead of the others, and at least one to two orders of magnitude ahead of the automobile.

Further opportunities might open up by considering the purpose of the trip also—on this basis, we may find that it’s not actually necessary, and could be avoided altogether by rearranging schedules so that multiple trips can be combined in one. We might even find that on examination the reason for the trip is unnecessary, or that being somewhere in person isn’t actually required. That is, the energy use for the originally envisaged trip might drop to zero! Many changes in cultural practices around telecommuting, ride sharing (i.e. coordinating car passengers), car sharing (i.e. coordinating car ownership) and use of active transport modes involve new ways of viewing the relationships between what we do, why we do it and how we go about it. It’s possible to see emerging here the opportunities for viewing energy issues not simply as technical matters, but ultimately as social and cultural matters: as questions of meaning and purpose. As alluded to a while back now, this will take on greater significance as the inquiry unfolds.

In the meantime though, the next post will continue exploring the efficiency theme by looking in more detail at what I’ve called the systemic view. That may be a few weeks away yet, as I fit Beyond this Brief Anomaly around other commitments.


Note 1: I’m paraphrasing here based on Robert Kegan’s account in his books The Evolving Self [1] and In Over Our Heads [2] —I’ve previously read the source that Kegan cites for this, William Perry’s classic Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years [3] , and have scanned the original text again for something that matches closely with Kegan’s version without finding a clear candidate. It may be that the line from Kegan is his own summation of Perry’s findings, rather than something that Perry wrote directly.


[1] Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[2] Kegan, R. (1997). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[3] Perry, William G. Jr. (1999). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (originally published 1970).

[4] Checkland, Peter B. & Poulter, John. (2006). Learning for action: A short definitive account of Soft Systems Methodology, and its use for practitioners, teachers and students. London: John Wiley & Sons, p. 173.

[5] Bawden, Richard. (2005). Systemic development at Hawkesbury: Some personal lessons from experience. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 22, 151-164.

[6] Fisher, Frank. (2006). The myth of the efficient car. In Response Ability: Environment, Health and Everyday Transcendence (pp. 120-122). Melbourne: Vista.

2 thoughts on “A comprehensive view of system performance

  1. Pingback: The economic view of systemic efficiency: energy return on energy investment | Beyond this Brief Anomaly

  2. Pingback: The economic view of systemic efficiency: rebound and backfire—Jevons’ legacy | Beyond this Brief Anomaly

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