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Structurally Unlucky

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-zczJXSxnw]

 

During a lecture hosted by our university’s engineering department, I was introduced to the Paradox of Design:

The lessons learned—from historically massive engineering failures such as steamships (Titanic) and suspensions bridges (Tacoma Narrows Bridge)—lead to success in future innovations; however, successful designs can evolve into eventual failures.

Dr. Henry Petroski, Professor of Civil Engineering and History at Duke University

If the Titanic had not struck an iceberg, bigger ships with fewer lifeboats would have been built. If the Narrows Bridge’s retrofitted cables had not snapped, thinner and lighter bridges without trusses and stays would have spanned the world’s waters. According to Petroski, “When something just works, we may not know how close we stand next to failure.”

I see clear parallels between these engineering disasters and the collapse of the financial sector. Economic institutions incrementally moved from investing in sound traditional strategies toward speculations in creative derivatives; initial success invited additional risk exposure. Philosopher Bernard Williams coined a notion of ‘Moral Luck,’ where the same act can produce wildly different outcomes, and praise and blame are assigned for partially uncontrolled circumstances. In this lucky or unlucky world, the Titanic does not hit the iceberg; Tacoma still has their bridge; the housing bubble has not burst . . . disaster is momentarily delayed for a much larger breakdown.

Yet while continued success can pave the way for larger failures, I’m not a Luddite who opposes progress. Engineers and economists need to take creative and innovative steps in design and application. Of course, ethical foundations are often found lacking. Increased regulation always follows tragedy and failure, resulting in a better artifact, community, or corporate structure for the short term. Ultimately, a well-established prior corporate ethos (structure/character) frames the proper boundaries and appropriate risks in future decision making—especially in times of success.

Thanks to Professor Petroski for connecting the history of suspension arches to design theory; and to my father for showing his son the buildings and bridge(s) he helped design as a structural engineer.