1 May 2012

The trouble with engineers

...is that they are pretty smart, and they use their smarts to design "systems" that are highly efficient at connecting known inputs and outputs.

In the water business, these systems bring water to customers. They function well as long as the safety margins -- for droughts, leaks, etc. -- are not breached. The trouble begins when politicians ask "just a little more" out of those systems, taking them to their design limits. That's ok, until an UNKNOWN input or output arrives -- destabilizing the system. Life, unfortunately, is full of "known and unknown unknowns" so these shocks are inevitable (also see my review of Jacobs).

In the national security business, it's also possible to "design" a system for reconciling citizen demands with political supplies. These systems -- described in this Economist article on civil conflict -- can make it easier to understand what people want, but they are dangerous in two ways. First, because -- again -- they make it possible for politicians to push policies up to the limits. Second, they ignore a fundamental aspect of good governance: give people basic rights and services, then LEAVE THEM to find their social equilibrium.*

It's political hubris, then, that not only leads to instability but also unhappiness. That's no insight (it's as old as the Greeks), but it's increasingly important in a world where societies are increasingly engineered (developed).

The irony is that LDCs have both the potential to be more and less stable. More stable because the government does not have the tools or inclination to try to control so many parts of citizens' lives; less stable because the governments do not realize what their citizens want.

May Day Bottom Line: Design systems that help citizens improve their lives, not systems that monitor and control them "for their own good."

* Financial engineers are also pushing the limits:
When asked whether she thought all these quants made for more stable financial markets, Mirghaemi looked at me and said: “It is very, very risky and it brings a lot of volatility to the markets and it is out of control.”


  1. I think you mean political engineers, especially those with top down type "plans". Which, in the name of efficiency, must be dictated, and dissenters marginalized/silenced.

    Nice post for May Day so we remember what their conceit can do.

    As an water quality engineer I see my job as to provide useful alternatives and solid information on the consequences/costs of certain actions/projects to the political decision makers. Then, as long as public health and safety is addressed (at least in the short term), I endeavor to accept those decisions as sound and implement them to the best of my ability, knowing they may need to be revisited later.

    I find that generally the closer to the (informed) citizen level those decisions are made the more wisdom emerges. In fact, I have learned the most, even being able to see past the textbook answers, when sent back to the drawing board by such concerned citizens working from the bottom up.

  2. @JD -- agreed, altho I think the line between "street" and "political" engineers is a question of abstraction from ultimate customers, not a disciplinary title (i.e., master water planners can be worse than a "political engineer" at a bake sale :)


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