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Created by John C Thomas on 21 February, 2002

<< Limits to Growth >>

We generally tend to assume that growth is good. However, in any social, technical, socio-technical, or biological system, there reaches a point where continued growth is detrimental. Typically, during the positive growth phase, we are so focused on growth that no provision is developed to limit growth until the negative consequences have begun to exert themselves. Often, at this point, it is too late. Instead, we propose that even during the positive growth phase, we need to anticipate that a point will come where we need to slow growth, design, implement, test and deploy those braking actions ahead of time and have them in place for quickly effectuating.

We tend to think that growth is goodness. Yet, there comes a point where continued growth is no longer positive. For example, People Express Airlines offered exceptionally good customer service. They motivated their employees, heavily cross-trained them, and established esprit de corps. Because of their exceptional service, their customers came to expect exceptional customer service and tell others about it. Both their market share and their stock price grew rapidly. Unfortunately, this required People Express to hire quickly and short-change the training and enculturation process. The new employees had more of a “not my job” attitude. Customer service was below average and far below expectations. Soon, People Express was out of business. In general, while we concentrate on stimulating growth, we also need to anticipate that a point may come where it is necessary to slow growth. Yet, we also want to avoid slowing growth too much. How can we provide effective methods and mechanisms for slowing growth appropriately in a new field of endeavor?

The contexts in which this problem occurs are many if we describe context at the level of particulars. For instance, you may be setting up a new website and want to attract as many people as possible. Yet, if too many people come too quickly, you may not have the capacity to handle them. Your service may be so slow that everyone gets discouraged and no one comes back. Your company may be experiencing rapid growth. To meet the demand, you promote quickly, without taking the time for adequate management training, putting safeguards against exploitation by managers in place, or protecting your intellectual assets. The front line workers become discouraged and leave in large numbers. They take with them both their expertise and your customer base. The human race begins to grow in population to the point where agriculture becomes feasible. This in turn allows some people the leisure time to develop mathematics, astronomy, weather forecasting, science, medicine and so on leading to still further population growth. In geological time, we are suddenly faced with a population that is quickly growing beyond the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet. Imagine that early in the history of the automotive industry, you had tremendous difficulty building a car that achieved sufficient speed. Finally, you build such a car. It accelerates. You go faster and faster. Suddenly you are going too fast, headed down a steep hill, and now you realize that this car should also have brakes. Better engineering practice would have been to anticipate this possibility and incorporate brakes into the car even though, at the time, you were having so much trouble generating speed that it seemed humorous to worry about brakes.

The general way to state all these contexts is simply this. In any growth process, there is likely to be a region during which continued growth is good. There will come a point on that growth curve however, where the negative consequences of continued growth outweigh the advantages, perhaps critically so. Yet, our natural tendency is to focus on methods of fostering growth. When we pass the region of positive benefits of growth, we tend to hope the negative consequences will disappear on their own. Finally, the negative consequences become so great that we begin to think about how to limit growth. This is generally far later than would be optimal and may be so late as to be ultimately futile

· People tend to focus on the positive benefits of growth and therefore focus on building accelerator mechanisms to enhance growth
· Once the negative consequences of growth become obvious, it is often difficult or impossible to turn off the accelerators that have been put into place.
· It takes time to conceive of, design, build, test, deploy and turn on braking mechanisms.

Rather than waiting until the negative aspects of unlimited growth become manifest, assume up front that such a point will come. Predicting exactly when that point will come is difficult. Therefore, as soon as possible, while still enjoying the positive benefits of growth, develop multiple braking mechanisms for slowing growth. These should operate independently, in so far as possible. Each mechanism should have a “watermark” so that it is possible to measure the effects of each separate braking mechanism separately. The mechanisms must be designed, built, tested (insofar as possible), and deployed prior to the need to invoke them in order to minimize the time lag between seen need and use. The overall braking plan should include a method for measuring and correcting the use of each separate braking mechanism.

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