Four macro-design principles that matter for risk managers and policymakers—and why the Precautionary Principle doesn’t

–Only within macro-design can you argue from first principles to fixed conclusions. So, when I’m told that macro-principle also governs really-existing micro-operations (think: universal human rights applying equally to each and every individual across the planet), I’m left wondering just how does this work. It puts me in mind of those Renaissance paintings of the Annunciation that leave viewers guessing about just how close to the Virgin Mary did God’s dove have to get in order to inseminate her.

Did the earlier cave-people share the basic human right to healthcare? Will those smarter-than-human robots of the future also have the basic right to refuse forced labor? Whatever. Nothing, though, stops some principles being grounded explicitly in and around how things work. In my field, policy analysis, I can think of four.

–First—as a matter of principle—context and time matter: System knowledge has to accommodate local knowledge in order for management to occur. Second—as a matter of principle—every design proposal must pass the ‘‘reliability matters’’ test. Would the proposal, when implemented, reduce the task volatility that managers face? Does it increase their options to respond to volatility? Does it increase their maneuverability in responding to different, often unpredictable or uncontrollable, performance conditions?

The test of efficacy here is not ‘‘Have we designed a system that can be managed?,’’ but rather ‘‘Is this a system we can manage to redesign when needed?’’

Third—as a matter of principle—any macro-design that compels professionals to work for an extended or indefinite period of time in a task environment outside their domain of competence cannot be expected to produce reliable services. True, a crisis pushes real-time professionals to work beyond the limits of the known, and even of the knowable—but management professionalism alone cannot keep that coping underway sine die.

Fourth, as a matter of principle, management alternatives exist precisely because the vital questions of society and economy are complex, and complexity is the enemy of the intractable, i.e., complex problems are complex enough to recast differently.

–The social and legal critic Roberto Mangabeira Unger wrote that the dilemma people face is ‘‘the dictatorship of no alternatives’’: ‘‘All over the world, people complain that their national politics fail to deliver real alternatives’’. But if we actually looked all over the world, we’d find much by way of alternative practices useful for our own management.

You cannot complain that, on one hand the planet is overpopulated with 7-plus billion people, while in the same breadth, complain that too few really-existing practices are available for improving matters.

The four principles insist that system designers learn about contingencies that cannot be planned for, but which must be managed by managers in real time, and then often case by case. This means that the responsibility and duty of real-time veto over design and technology moves from the designers/planners to the operators/managers—when high reliability is the mandate.

–An example of other principles that run against the four? For one, the Precautionary Principle in risk management. That principle insists on avoiding altogether positions that may have extreme consequences in favor of a more cautious approach.

But that word, “altogether,” is the stinker. Surely it can’t be true that the Precautionary Principle holds everywhere, or even most everywhere, or even when the issue concerned is everywhere important. For that matter, where does the control come from to achieve the avoidance necessitated by the Precautionary Principle? You can of course legislate the Principle, but you can’t control its execution.[1]

More, we know from the literature on society’s critical infrastructures that it takes their variable management, not control, to avoid extreme events, if only because differences in context are unavoidable. And aren’t critical infrastructures the only real-time mechanism we have to manage, not control, for avoidance of extreme events we know that matter?

And are there other avoidance strategies better than the Precautionary Principle? Obviously! They’ve emerged and been modified as different practices for different situations—again, what else can you expect from manifold billions on this planet?

[1] An illustration of a control-oriented application of the Precautionary Principle to pandemics, like that of COVID-19, is provided by well-known economic geographer, Bent Flyvbjerg. He recently recommended mitigation measures that (with his bolding)

(a) cut the tail [i.e., fat-tailed risk of a pandemic] (by breaking the chain of transmission through, e.g., lockdowns, personal protection equipment like face masks, testing, development of vaccines, etc.) and (b) the precautionary principle (rather a lockdown too many than one too few)–rolled out immediately, at speed, and at scale, worldwide.

But if we could control all this (including that wonderful “etc.”), we’d never have a pandemic in the first place, right?

Principal source

Flyvbjerg, B. (2020). The law of regression to the tail: How to survive Covid-19, the climate crisis, and other disasters. Environmental Science and Policy 114 (December): 614 – 618.

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