Coco Krumme: putting the optimisation mindset in its place

Have we been seduced by optimisation to such a degree that we can no longer see its limits? Coco Krumme argues that that's esactly what's happened.

Coco Krumme is an applied mathematician (PhD MIT) and author of the new book OPTIMAL ILLUSIONS, which examines the history of optimisation and efficiency, and turns a critical eye on how these concepts took over the Western world.

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How does a mathematical concept like optimisation become so embedded into our culture? The start-up productivity mentality has been in full swing for well over a decade now. It’s bled into people’s personal lives; they optimise their calendars, childcare, nutrition, and exercise.

Krumme’s own relationship with optimisation is complicated. She hung on to a flip phone a decade beyond the point of embarrassment. While she was deep in data science, she bought a falling-down cabin on a lake. Very naively, she began trying to fix it up. She had no relevant skills, but she learned as she went. At the same time, she was also learning what it meant to live in a small community, at a slower pace of life. Her garden failed for years.

The skills of optimisation weren’t helping her here. The pace of life was very different. It was a way of living that wasn’t about doing things faster, better and at scale. Many of us in the West feel the pressure to go faster and to do more. Yet, we see places where optimisation is breaking down. During the pandemic, we saw dramatic examples of supply chains failing. We saw food and fuel prices shooting up. The assumptions of society started to fail.

How does optimisation work?

Optimisation is a combination of objective functions, with constraints and a process. And three techniques allowed us to use them:

  • Atomisation — splitting things into discrete, identical objects
  • Abstraction — the techniques of mathematical modelling, to improve things.
  • Automation — using the above to make things more efficient

John Stuart Mill was behind the ideas of utilitarianism. It suggests we as individuals can connect our actions to social good, and thus maximise social good through our actions. Before these ideas emerged, our philosophies tended to emphasise being good for moral or intrinsic reasons.

How optimisation became embedded in Western thought

Stanisław Ulam developed the Monte Carlo method, while sick with encephalitis. He was bored, and playing cards. He wondered what the odds of winning a game of solitaire were based on the cards on the table. So he modelled it, and others perfected that modelling. This allowed the systemisation of the idea of individual action contributing to the general good.

And then there’s Marie Kondo, author of the best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. She’s from the same philosophy of optimising, through the optimisation of the home. She’s made it magical, transformative in her conceptualisation of it. Not only that, but she took optimisation and gave it an almost spiritual component.

Optimisation isn’t bad: it’s given us drugs, abundant food and technology. But it’s cost us.

The costs of optimisation

Our monomaniacal focus on optimisation has cost us three things:

  • Slack — the lack of rest and downtime, which we need to grow and create.
  • Place — the flattening of place, until everywhere looks the same, with the same shops, buildings, and businesses. It’s efficient, but less rich in experience.
  • Scale — we’ve lost human scale and connection. Events like NEXT help us restore that. We easily lose track of our connections to others.

If you optimise for a point in time, you don’t account for changes over time — or things you don’t know about an environment. Optimisations we made 100 years ago might be failing now — and, in some cases, are failing now. In the US, there are several aircraft boneyards, where aircraft bought as part of an optimisation around travel patterns rot because they’re no longer needed. Why? The patterns they optimised for changed.

Escaping the optimisation trap

So, what do we do about it? There are two ideas to keep in mind:

  • Remember what you lose by optimising – and see if you can reclaim it
  • Prepare for the unexpected, and give yourself room to change