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April 21, 2010

data economy

I keep thinking about economics, which is difficult because I don't know much about the subject.

At work I've become the data person. I love numbers when they relate to something concrete - the latter part of that sentence is just important as the first part (and why I am not a mathematician). My assumption is that economics is relational data. It is based on measuring the flow of energy, in the form of goods and services and sometimes dollars or other currency. However, too often it seems to just measure the flow in a straight line instead of a circular one - with "waste" being the end product. As a Buddhist I know there is no such thing as waste - or if there is it is a verb and not a noun. I'd like to study the difference between what I call "traditional linear" economics and a circular one - which is what I believe we are moving into as we realize how small this planet is and how finite our resources are.

In the February edition of the Economist (I am still catching up on my reading), there is a special section on data. I had never thought of data as a "waste product" until reading this:
Mr Mundie of Microsoft and Eric Schmidt, the boss of Google, sit on a presidential task force to reform American healthcare. "Early on in this process Eric and I both said: 'Look, if you really want to transform health care, you basically build a sort of health-care economy around the data that relate to people'," Mr Mundie explains. "You would not just think of data as the 'exhaust' of providing health services, but rather they become a central asset in trying to figure out how you would improve every aspect of health care. It's a bit of an inversion."

This inversion is exactly the sort we talk about in the zero-waste world, where we too feel we are at the exhaust pipe of the production chain, catching whatever those dudes at the top feel like feeding through the engine. Who knew that zero-waste and health care reform had so much in common?

What other applications will wake up to waste created by thinking linear instead of circular (and who knew the latter could ever be a good thing). In a circular economy, as in the real world, there is no tail pipe, there is no "away". The smoke that leaves the engine simply enters our bodies, plants, and whatever else happens to be around. Not only does it cause physical harm, but as the tech geeks above mention, it is a wasted opportunity too. Do a quick search how many airplanes can be built each year from the aluminum we casually discard. And now I wonder, how much information is lost because systems aren't designed around getting the most out it. I'd love to start thinking about how to design a system, an economy centered around no tail pipe. But first I should probably learn more about our current economies work.