Three design principles that matter for risk managers and policymakers–and the condition under which 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 that leave viewers guessing about just how close to the Virgin Mary did that 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 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 and management, I can think of three.

–First—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 controlled?,’’ but rather ‘‘Is this a system we can manage to redesign when needed?’’

Second—as a matter of principle—any macro-design that compels its 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. A crisis of course can push real-time professionals to work beyond the limits of the known, and even of the knowable—but management professionalism can’t make the coping professional.

Third, as a matter of principle, management alternatives exist because society and economy are complex, i.e., because problems are complex, they can be 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 7.5+ billion people, while in the same breadth, complain that too few really-existing practices are available for improving matters.

–The three principles together insist that system designers learn about contingencies that cannot be planned for, but which must be managed 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 that runs against the three principles? For one, there is the Precautionary Principle as often applied to risk management. It insists on avoiding positions that may have extreme consequences in favor of a more cautious approach.

The question immediately arises: Where does the control come from to achieve the avoidance necessitated by the Precautionary Principle? You can legislate the Principle, but you can’t control its execution. More to the point, aren’t critical infrastructures the only real-time large-scale mechanism we have to manage for avoidance of extreme events we know that matter?

–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?

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