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Optimisation versus resilience

There is a trade-off between optimisation and resilience – and many of us have underappreciated the latter
Optimisation versus resilience

One message of this crisis is that there is a trade-off between efficiency and flexibility or, if you prefer, between resilience and optimisation.

For example, the NHS is tolerably efficient – perhaps as much as we can expect any huge organisation to be – but it lacks the capacity to respond well to sudden spikes in demand of the sort caused by Covid-19 (or even normal seasonal flu) because hospital beds are usually occupied and medical staff are working flat out even in normal times. Imagine, by contrast, that there were in normal times large numbers of empty wards. The idiot media would then complain about waste and inefficiency. But such spare capacity is just what the NHS needs to cope with extra demand.

To take another example, supermarket supply chains are very efficient at dealing with normal demand, and even with predictable spikes of the sort we get at Christmas. But empty shelves show they are not so resilient to unexpected rises in demand. And, remember, the recent increase has not been great. There are reports of shoppers having stockpiled £1bn of goods over a three-week period. But that’s equivalent to only an extra £12 per household per week during these three weeks – which is an increase of around 10 per cent for the time of year.

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