Monday, May 10, 2010

A Steaming, Heaping, Pile of Architecture

For just a moment, I want you to think of New York City as it was in the year 1900.  The population was 3.6 million, if you count the 200,000 horses that lived and worked there.  The horse is a beautiful animal, one that can work hard - and at the turn of the century, horses definitely earned their keep.  They were used for every mode of transportation, including personal carriages. trolleys, fire 'trucks', and more.  They were literally the engine that moved the city. 

Of course, they also produced waste.  Dung.  Lots of it.  On average, a horse produces 24 pounds of manure a day - given that New York City had 200,000 of them - that means 5 million pounds, or two and a half tons of horse poop.  Every day.

Where does one put 5,000,000 pounds of horsey-poo when one knows that another 5,000,000 pounds is coming tomorrow? Vacant lots in the city had piles of the droppings 60 feet high.  The next time you admire the elegant steps adorning the front of a New York  brownstone, remember that the first floors of these homes were elevated to get the windows higher than the piles of equine evacuates. 

This was not a humanitarian and ecological disaster for New York alone.  Every major city in the world was suffering the same fate.  In fact, in 1898 the world's first urban planning conference was held for ten days in New York City, with the primary focus being, "How do you solve a problem like too much horse dung."  The conference ended after only three days because all attempts at solving this crisis were deemed fruitless.

In 1900 a New Yorker was twice as likely to die in a horse accident as was his great grandchild in 2007 by an automobile.

And then - it just went away.  The slow steady advent of automobiles reduced the use of horses, and their 'output' and in a span of twenty years significantly improved the environmental conditions of urban living, including a reduction of feces-based disease and illness, unbearable odor, and unimaginable noise. 

Remember that the automobiles of that era were not the complex human cocoons of today.  Some didn't even have four wheels or a roof.  No; cars of the early 20th century were pretty basic machines - simple by almost any standard.  In short, a world-wide crisis of epic proportions was solved with a relatively simple solution.

Other examples abound where we tend to think that because a problem is big, the solution must be equally big. H. J. Heinz had a terrible problem in that customers demanded thicker and thicker ketchup, but habitually complained about how long it took to get it out of the bottle.  Even the rubbery squeeze bottles didn't solve the problem.  Thickness and gravity were enemies and no amount of engineering, physical or chemical was ever going to make them friends.

Until someone thought of putting the opening of the bottle on the bottom.  Simple.

IT professionals live in a complex environment, and the complexity is increasing and accelerating.  We must constantly fight technology inertia - that constant force that promotes ever-increasing levels of complexity.  Just because a problem seems insurmountable doesn't mean the solution must be equally significant - in fact, the best solutions are the ones that are elegantly simple.

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