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The diseconomies of complexity over simplicity

By X.N. Iraki | October 24th 2017 at 10:36:05 GMT +0300

My recent flight to Eldoret through JKIA terminal two left me thinking. This terminal looks temporary but it has all that you need in an airport, from checking-in desk to a waiting room and washrooms.

The structure is temporary, from the walls to the roof. It seems if need be, it can be dismantled in a few hours.

Compare that with the older part of the airport with concrete structures that would be difficult to redesign.

The walking aisles are quite narrow compared with other airports. As a passenger, I want to spend as little time as possible at the airport. The structure does not matter much as long as a good plane takes me to where I want, when I want. Ideally, except for security checks, one should hop on a taxi into the plane. Is that not the basis of just-in-time production system?  

The online check-in has tried to reduce the time one spends on the “queue”. It gets even better, some flights connect you directly to trains. Why should I spend time buying train tickets when an airline can do both.  The simplicity of this new terminal left me wondering why we can’t replicate it in other airstrips all over the country and make air transport compete with matatus, buses and the standard gauge railway (SGR).

That will bring down the fares and make the economy more efficient.  Surprisingly, I found plane tickets cheaper than bus tickets in the US. Why can’t we strive to be simple? Why do we love complexity yet parsimony will be cheaper in the long run?

The public sector loves grandiose projects, in concrete so that we can keep saying that such and such project was built by so and so. We think too much of concrete legacy.

Some argue that if we made temporary structures, lots of people in the construction industry would be jobless. We forget that the money saved would be invested elsewhere, more productively.

The private sector, read entrepreneurs has exploited parsimony or non complexity.  They have found there is lots of money in flexibility. They came up with mobile toilets. 

Developed countries

They are doing extremely well with movable tents of all shapes and sizes.  They have outside catering too. They have Uber too. A visit to developed countries surprises you on the non-permanency of houses, made of just wood or plastic.

Here, we built permanent houses after retirement. The trouble is what the children will do with such a house which can’t be subdivided yet you disallowed them from selling. Complexity again.

Why do we love complexity and its diseconomies? Lots of Kenyans will quickly add that we build permanent houses because of insecurity. It is more than that.  We think complexity makes us look special. Why do we ask people to go to our offices when we can resolve the issue on the phone?

From airports to our homes, we need to shift away from complexity; it denies us flexibility and stifles creativity. That terminal can be put into another use.  It is in public services where complexity is taken to another level espoused by bureaucracy.

This complexity drags down the private sector. We must give credit where it is due; shifting of State services like issuance of driving licenses and paying taxes to online platforms has reduced complexity. We need more of that in all facets of our lives.

Just visit any developed country and the level of simplicity surprises you. Life is easy. Working is also easy; no wonder they live longer than us.  From birth to death, there is a concerted effort to make life easy, pleasant and worth living. We think making life difficult for other people is heroism.

In developed countries, houses have numbers and streets have names making it easier to use Google maps, deliver pizza or other products or reach you in case of emergencies.

If you called an ambulance in Githurai 44 or Mathare, how would you describe your location? Thanks to the invention of GPS location system, we’ve just started giving houses numbers.

In other countries, schooling is made a part of life; it is no wonder graduates give their alma mater millions of dollars, leading to endowment funds that rival our budget.

These countries have also made voting easy and they do not need holidays on voting day.

-The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi


standard gauge railway Jomo Kenyatta International Airport
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