Problems of scale

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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2008-02-17 14:00:01

I was in India recently for a couple of weeks, and while I was there, I noticed a few things that I found interesting. India is currently going through huge growth spurts (economically, anyway), and they're trying to develop infrastructure to match more developed countries. However, the way I see it, they're going about it all wrong. As I see it, there are two main problems, both of which are driven by the huge population.

The first is simply one of scale. The population is so large and the population density is so high that approaches that work elsewhere simply can't scale to work in India. Problems of transportation and distribution in particular are hard to deal with. Traditional distribution methods (say, for example, using a truck to deliver food to grocery stores) requires infrastructure, which takes up space. The more people you have, the more stuff you need to distribute, the more infrastructure it requires, and the more space it takes up. When high population density (i.e. lack of space) is a problem to begin with, this approach runs into problems pretty fast.

The same applies to transportation - people need to get from one place to another, which usually requires roads and cars. The more people you have, the more cars and roads you have, and the more space this takes up. In fact, a 32-lane toll plaza was recently opened on a new highway in Delhi. The thing is huge, and it's still not big enough to handle the traffic that goes through (although partly because of the second problem, which I'll get to in a bit).

To their credit, they are greatly expanding the metro system (which I unfortunately didn't have the time to see) so mass public transit in Delhi at least should be somewhat better. On the other hand, the introduction of the Tata Nano later this year is bound to clog up whatever space is freed as people upgrade from scooters to cars.

The second problem is also population-driven. The problem is that people in India have, over time, learnt that following the rules is bad. Rules in general are designed for the greater good at the expense of the individual. Usually, the expense to the individual is negligible, but when you scale up to the population in India, that expense becomes significant. For instance, when you're trying to obtain something, the general rule is to wait in the line until the people ahead of you have been served. This works fine until there's a million people waiting in line ahead of you. Following the rules gets you stuck at the end of the line, waiting for days. By the time you get to the front, the place is closed or they're all out.

So people won't follow the rules. They take the greedy approach and cut to the front of the line. And of course, if one person does it, everybody else will do it because otherwise they'll never even get to the front of the line, let alone get what they were waiting for. I don't really blame them for this, since usually the rules don't take into account the problems introduced by population. However, the end result is chaos. Following the rules is something that happens only by accident. For a relatively tame example, see this video of how traffic works. I say that example is tame because I myself saw plenty of cases where people ran red lights, went the wrong way up a one-way street, or parked in the middle of the road. In one case, somebody decided that the quickest way to get their flock of sheep from one side of a superhighway to the other side was simply to walk across, blocking all traffic. Who needs rules when you've got sheep to feed?

Getting back to that toll plaza, guess what happens when you have 32 lanes and people who don't follow the rules? People go lane-hopping, resulting in all sorts of unnecessary traffic jams and gridlock. They built the toll plaza with 32 lanes because they calculated that it would be enough capacity to deal with the traffic. And if people followed the rules, it would be. The problem was that they didn't factor in people's tendency to ignore the rules. They took a solution that works in other countries, scaled it up, and expected it to work, without taking into account all the other problems that creep in when things are pushed beyond their scalable limit (if nobody's yet coined the term "scalable limit", then I'm laying claim to it!)

As India grows, they have a huge opportunity to innovate and solve these problems of scale in new and original ways. One example is the WiMAX network they're building (and already deployed in some cities). WiMAX is still fairly new, but they realized that it was a solution that would work at the scale they needed it to, so they went ahead and tried it. It may turn out to be a total failure, but I'd still give them credit for trying something new instead of going with some old solution that obviously won't scale.

Also, while I've focused mostly on the technological aspects above, I don't think that all of the problems are solvable technologically, particularly if the population keeps growing. At some point they're going to have to look into cultural and societal changes too, although that's probably happening already as the younger generations are more exposed to outside influences. In the end, I'm sure everything will sort itself out, but it would be nice if they didn't completely wreck the planet in the process.

Posted by Fai at 2008-02-17 16:44:46
So there's nothing wrong with the scale of the solution. Like you said, the toll plaza is capable of dealing with scale, if people followed the rules. The real problem is there is cultural differences and a system that works in England, because everyone knows how to queue, does not work in India.

Talking to an ex-pat, he sees the problems as corruption (which apparently is widespread) and the separation of classes (rich/poor, hindu/muslim)
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Posted by stak at 2008-02-17 18:03:58
I guess that's partly true. I still think the cultural differences in this case were created by the scale of population, although they may have now have taken on a life of their own. And while a 32-lane plaza fits here, it's not an approach that can be used everywhere because there's not enough physical space. The population density is too high to be able to simply displace enough people to fit monster pieces of infrastructure.
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Posted by Jen at 2008-02-19 20:32:19
According to an article in China Daily, Beijing has recently introduced "Queueing Day" on the 11th of each month to encourage citizens to behave in a more civilized fashion in preparation for the Olympics. In my experience (while short), it seemed to help, Beijing was far more civilized than I had been warned about.
[ Reply to this ]
Posted by Fai at 2008-02-21 00:31:25
really? to learn to queue? Did they import English teachers? :P
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