Why does Europe love many moving parts?
I was recently in Europe presenting our work, following which I backpacked the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland - travelling through old and new towns, countrysides, and cities. One of the most striking differences between how products and processes are structured between these countries and India is the fascination and omnipresence of many moving parts in Europe.
When problem-solvers design interventions in India, they typically try to reduce the number of moving parts in the system with the straightforward and empirically-validated notion that ‘the greater the number of parts in the system, the more likely it is to break’. Several experiences like these have led me to design the Monticola snake hooks - to be super functional and resilient, an upgrade from the collapsible snake hooks. I explicitly tried to simplify the design, and remove as many moving parts as possible. This notion has been tested across space and time; in the automobile industry, software space, compliance and legal systems - and has also led to the catchy acronym used in design, KISS - ‘keep it simple, silly’.
KISS - ‘keep it simple, silly’
The astronomical clock with lots of moving parts - this was made in 1410
However, almost everywhere I looked, there seemed to be exceptions to this idea in Europe. Armrests in buses that rotated a full 270 degrees to go up or down, instead of the simple 90 degrees, ie, up or down. Blinds that were controlled by a remote from inside the room - with the motor driving them up and down being outside the window- meant that a repair would mean being suspended outside the building. An electronic touch button to open the door of the metro/tram/bus - where a mechanical switch could have easily done the job. Why are these European systems tending towards complexity?
This is not a recent phenomenon; some of the star attractions of these countries are their historic monuments dating back centuries - often from the middle ages. The most celebrated one would be the astronomical clock of Prague, established in 1410. This comprises a set of several dials that in addition to telling the date, time, year, and moon phase also ring every hour where a model skeleton pulls a bell, other statues move their heads, a mechanical rooster crows, and a set of twelve apostles rotate within a window that opens for those few minutes. This perfectly illustrates the love for moving parts. However, such complexity unarguably makes a system less resilient and more susceptible to breakage, and failure – then why would a successful, economically-developed country tend toward it? Well, I think that the answer lies in the question.
The clock in Prague is a central attraction for tourists
Because these countries are considered developed, they invest in such systems which are a subliminal signal of strength, technological prowess, and power. This is akin to the ‘handicap principle’ in ecology - which seeks to explain why male peacocks have such long, vibrant, and cumbersome tails. These tails are an impediment for the peacocks in the forests that they live in, making them more conspicuous to predators, heavier to fly, and poor camouflagers. However, they signal to female peacocks, ie, potential mates, that despite having such a seeming disadvantage they are able to survive, suggesting that they have ‘good genes’ and hence are good mates to father their offspring.
Similarly, the non-essential, and even wasteful complexity in these countries’ systems is a fairly good signal to gauge the level of technological progress and prosperity of a country. This is probably also why states choose to invest in large infrastructure projects that are of little functional use to their citizens, and why beautiful but non-functional forms of architecture evolved, such as the neo-classical gothic style. This is also very evident in churches, where irrespective of one’s beliefs, the tall, grand, unnecessarily complex structure subconsciously instils awe - and communicates to potential believers the power of the institution. This is not to say that such systems exist simply because they look good, make us feel good, and are an expression of creativity - but I am curious about why it makes us feel good.
An intricate stepwell in Gujarat - made in 1499
More on these lines can be found in the works of Zahawi, Hamilton and Zuk, and most recently in ‘Hidden Games’ by Yeoli and Hoffman - which looks at why we think, feel and do what we do.