Centralization and Decentralization

While it’s often easier to manage a few, cen­tralized systems, these are often less sustainable solutions because, though strong, when they fail, the rest of the system fails with them. This is why a tree falling on a power line in Wash­ington state can trigger a power outage over most of the Western United States. Centraliza­tion was the management approach that gov­erned society and culture throughout much of human history (certainly Western history) and was responsible for creating the Industrial Age when it was applied to production. Everything from central banking to centralized power plants to large corporations with central man­agement to centralized distribution systems to centralized education to the “hub and spoke” air transportation model reflects the thinking that centralization is best. And, from a purely

management perspective, it often is. But just because it has been popular doesn’t make it the best approach.

Centralization is not without serious faults. Centralized decision-making often doesn’t re­flect local expertise, knowledge, or understand­ing. Centralized distribution, combined with the standardization necessary with economies of scale often reduces choice, favoring quan­tity over variety. Centralized power (such as a coal-powered electricity plant) often produces power more efficiently that must be transmitted over greater distances (which reduces efficien­cy) and can reduce pollution in some commu­nities but instead concentrate it in others. In addition, centralized power is often less resil­ient since fewer, larger power plants are vastly more vulnerable to accidents, outages, and attacks than many, smaller ones distributed throughout the service area.

It is because of the negative impacts on diver­sity and resiliency that centralization is often less sustainable. Decentralized systems for everything from manufacturing to distribution to energy generation to political rule tend to be more sustainable. Consider how unresponsive centralized government often is for local issues. Or consider how much more resilient a com­munity’s power grid would be if it had a mix of energy inputs (especially if these were renew­able) spread across a power network, available locally where it is used. Natural gas turbines, geothermal and hydrothermal generation, co­generation (creating energy from waste), solar, wind, and so on can all exist easily within most communities without adverse health risks or other community concerns. Where possible, generating power where it is used has always been an efficient solution (mills have been situated next to rivers that could provide water power for centuries). However, organizations (whether corporations, NGOs, or govern­ments) that thrive because of their centralized control are often the most vocal opponents

to decentralized solutions because their ad­vantage is threatened, despite the beneficial aspects these solutions may have for everyone else.

It is because of the negative impacts on diversity and resiliency that cen­tralization is often less sustainable. Decentralized systems for everything from manufacturing to distribution to energy generation to political rule tend to be more sustainable.

To be sure, decentralization itself also has problems. Chief among them are standardiza­tion and communication. While decentraliza­tion can increase resiliency (and often equi­table opportunity), it requires standards and increased communication in order to function. The benefits, however, are often increased ef­ficiency in management, more resilient opera­tion in failure, and more innovated techniques in solutions generated. For example, it’s often easy for local communities to establish their own standards that may not be consistent, fair,

or interoperable in a larger context. This was largely the case with every developing technol­ogy, from screw sizes to electricity current to railroad track gauges to education standards to laws to money. Decentralized solutions are often problematic at their onset (this is espe­cially the case with new technologies) until standards are established. Progress is often retarded as competing solutions compete on low-level features and performance, that is until standards are established cooperatively or competitively. For example, consider software file formats. Until a standard was established for interchanging files and communicating with other equipment, say PostScript, applica­tions couldn’t universally talk to printers, type­setters, or other equipment. It wasn’t practical to even work on advanced applications like page layout applications, image editing appli­cations, or content management systems until these standards were established, despite the fact that they were envisioned long before they were able to be implemented.

Designers need to be aware of how their solu­tions inhibit or reinforce centralization—and be ready to defend why and whether their solu­tions are improvements and for whom these improvements benefit.

Updated: September 24, 2015 — 9:44 am