The Tragedy of the Common[']s [Fridge]

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During my graduate career, I've read and analyzed a ton of research papers. Of all the compliments that one could give, I think the highest praise is to say that a method, experimental design, or proof is elegant.

The papers that bring huge resources to bear to tackle crucially important problems are certainly well regarded, but nothing is so universally appealing as a succinctly and clearly addressed question. Programmers are particularly fond of elegant code, and Tyler and I certainly try to develop with an eye towards simplicity. It's easy to get caught up, however, in elegant implementation, and forget that what really matters is the usability of the site itself. As long as our code isn't so convoluted that it impedes our development, it doesn't matter how messy it gets as long as the front end maintains our desired accessibility.

All that said, I want to talk about an example of a really simple change that I've seen implemented recently. In retrospect, it's pretty obvious, but even still, it elegantly addressed an issue around the lab.

I recently heard Elinor Ostrom, one of the 2009 Nobel laureates in economics, interviewed on NPR's Planet Money podcast (incidentally, if you haven't checked it out, I'd strongly recommend subscribing to Planet Money).

My dumbed down understanding of her work is demonstrating that local solutions exist to the "tragedy of the commons," the idea that economically rational actors will inevitably destroy shared limited resources in the absence of any regulatory measures. Among the common (and probably off-base) examples of this is the ubiquitous common fridge which tends towards disaster in most workplaces.

Ostrom discussed this at the end of her interview, and it reminded me of a pretty elegant solution that has been working really well for keeping our floor's common fridge clean.

When I joined the group, the rules of the fridge were as follows:

  • Anything in the fridge that isn't labeled with a name and the date that it was put in the fridge is up for grabs

Anyone could consume or discard of unlabeled food at their discretion, and was generally happy to do so without too much of a hassle. To encourage people to use the system, a sharpie was taped to the fridge for easy labeling.

This worked to a certain extent, but inevitably, we ended up with perfectly labeled food sitting in the fridge until it sprouted legs and broke it's way out. About two years ago, someone made the following tweak and we haven't had to clean the fridge since:

  • Anything in the fridge that isn't labeled with a name and expiration date is up for grabs. Similarly, any food past it's expiration date is fair game

It's easy to see why this worked: it's now trivial to evaluate whether any existing item can be removed. There's no more grey area of perfectly labeled forgotten food that has been in the fridge for months.

Simple, clean, elegant, awesome. For what it's worth, I think our solution is a lot better than the one Ostrom discussed for their common fridge. Look for the Frigidaire prize in economics to be awarded to a colleague of mine in the near future.

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