the ideal city - historical perspective on efficiency

Looking Back on Efficiency: A Historical Perspective

History is written by the winners. Sadly this saying does not only apply when we read about wars. Any other documentation is just as much a product of a writer. And he always has a distinct view of the world. It is the source of a majority of historical data that give us insights in what happened before our time. It helps us to structure the continuous flow of happenings and events in a meaningful way. Suddenly details pop up that have been lost in time and we can reenact aspects of history deemed unimportant or dangerous.

A good example may be art history. We are confronted with data on artists and breathtaking works of art. Both are embedded into their historical, geographical and geopolitical context. Further multiplied by time passed the amount of data becomes literally unmanageable. To work with it we need to turn this data into a sequence of periods that can be classified and easily understood. Renaissance precedes Baroque which in turn precedes Neoclassicism, etc. . This framework of precedence generalises historical events to the point where we can comprehend them. So far so good, but what happens to events that simply won’t fit? A painter, who just happens to be a decade ahead of time? A school of artists, who refuse to take on the latest trend from Florence? Surely, an exception proves the rule. Art historians simply implemented sub classes that cope with these anomalies. It is an example for periods being error prone and anything but exact (see: Whig history).

How does this relate to a historical perspective on efficiency? In another article we used an ngram of efficiency to get an idea of its historical context. We found out that the concept as we use it today might be roughly 150 years old. In 1880 F. Taylor came up with a set of strategies to increase the productivity of factories. He coined the term “economic efficiency” we use today, though he didn’t invent it. In this scenario Taylor and others are the writers who documented their findings. Later a historian acknowledges the importance of their findings and adds them to the historical canon. For the sake of simplicity he collects the works of several writers under one term. In our case it is Scientific Management. The historian knows that Scientific Management didn’t exist in a vacuum. Something led way to it and something made it obsolete.

scientific management, historical perspective, frederick taylor, 1905, image via

A machinist at the Tabor Company, a firm where Frederick Taylor’s consultancy was applied to practice, about 1905 (Image via

We started off with the origin of the word efficiency. By a little help of Etymonline we could trace its roots way back into the 15th century. It stems from the latin word efficientem and means “producing” or “active”. Later it got adopted by Old French with a slightly changed meaning. From there it got adopted into Middle English. With every shift efficiency developed more of its current meaning. Until 1858 when it was mentioned in the context we use it today the first time. It was in mechanics where it was used to describe the “ratio of useful work done to energy expended”. Right on time for Taylor and many to follow to develop their ideas on Scientific Management. And right on time for us to suspect that there is more to efficiency than the eye meets. It leaves us with an important clue about what efficiency is about:

The Bigger Picture

We found out that efficiency is a term that changed over time. These changes are likely to have happened in shifts. In the beginning it described the action of “making” and “producing” something. Once it got adopted by Old French it would describe the “immediate effect” as well. By the time it got adopted into Middle English it would fully take the effect into account. This took place in the form of the “efficient cause” in ca. 1780. Nearly a century later it became a ratio. A ratio which we use till the present days. And a ratio that became the foundation of Taylor’s ideas to apply empirical methods to manufacturing processes.

We can also find these shifts in the 20th century. Taylor had great plans for his ideas. He wasn’t exactly the only one who worked on the concept but he might be the most notable one. He was convinced that his concepts would not only make manufacturing more productive. They could also be used to run universities or governments. When we look back in time he was right. By the 1930s Scientific Management and his initial ideas were obsolete. But in the meantime the field had grown. Scientific Management became famous and spread across the world. The result was that players from other fields got wind of Taylor’s ideas and started to modify them: Managers, Politicians, Architects and Designers. Even the broad public applied them in various scopes and forms. A lot of ideas doesn’t exist in their original form anymore but they remain very influential and we are able to find traces of them all over divers fields.

It seems that there is a fluid continuum linking Scientific Management with later fields. It is hard to tell where one field ends and the next continues. But what does this tell us about the history of efficiency? Or to be precise the time before scientific management? Speaking in terms of economic efficiency we found leads that a) shifts occur and b) that they occur in increasingly less time in between each shift. It also means that they are based on each other. We are speaking about a larger recurring theme in human life of increasing efficiency and of decreasing waste. Every shift may be seen as a chapter in a larger narrative that includes ideas from the folk wisdom of thrift to a profusion of applied-science successors.

Carlota Perez gave a presentation on The New Technological Revolution in 2013: “History can teach us a lot. Innovation has indeed always been the driver of growth and the main source of increasing productivity and wealth. But every technological revolution has brought two types of prosperity. The first type is turbulent and exciting like the bubbles of the 1990s and 2000s and like the Roaring twenties, the railway mania and the canal mania before. They all ended in a bubble collapse. Yet, after the recession, there came the second type: the Victorian boom, the Belle Époque, the Post War Golden Age and… the one that we could have ahead now. Bubble prosperities polarise incomes; Golden Ages tend to reverse the process.”

In a previous article we found out that often one of the most important reasons for restructuring is a foregoing or an upcoming crisis. People stop trusting in what works and begin to seek new iterations of a known topic. A topic that is being interpreted as a problem or a sign of being unreasonable. Hence: “the inefficiency of former rationalisation strategies”. We were able to find a link between innovation and efficiency but this will be one of the topics of more articles yet to come. Stay tuned in the meantime and as usual: Don’t be shy and let us know what you think in the comments below.


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