On the use and abuse of Technology and its Management from the perspective of an academic at UCL specialising in Project Management, Systems Engineering and Space Science/Technology.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Invention by Design, Petroski

Henry Petroski, Invention by Design

Henry Petroski has written a number of books that cluster around the craft and process of engineering. This one sets out to illustrate the inventive process of engineering design. I picked it up hoping to know more about innovation in other fields than my own.

In the ten or so case studies presented, the theme of the problem-as-impetus clearly emerges. Engineers, as critics of existing products, are driven to devise further inventive steps to reach toward a more excellent product. With some exceptions (the Boeing 777 case, which although probably the most contemporary, seemed to be lacking an undefinable quality of fidelity: does he really get what's going on there?), the cases revolve around the thoughts and craft of individuals. In some cases (the drinks can) their identities are obscure, whilst in others (the bridges of San Francisco) they spring from the pages dramatically. Exhibitions of patent documentation provides the bare bones, Henry P re-constructs the whole animal.

It's also clear that teams of engineers, or even distant collaborations, don't simply progress by cutting through an underlying bedrock of physical properties to get to the solution they seek. Rather, at each inventive stage, a higher order product, an improvement from the last, emerges from a mist. Thus we step from toggles to buttons, thence to what must have a been a nightmare of "automatic" clothes-tieing devices, to the zip as we know it. A series of hops then to the Ziplok bag, and yet another string of manoeuvres to Velcro.

But perversely, despite each invention begetting more invention, at the same time each enlargement of the scope and scale of the products seems to make it harder to analyse the next-generation design. Boeing's exponentially growing development budgets attests to this. Not all of the added complexity comes from within the product though, as there are network effects and social or legal changes concerning the use of the products that add further layers of requirement to each iteration.

The idea of resources as enablers, such as materials or tools, for certain types of design activity is also strongly exposed. He exemplifies this all through the book, pointing to CAD as a key technology for Boeing, standardisation for the Crystal Palace among many others. He seems to be too early to notice much use of computing in architecture though.

The chapter on buildings as systems shows how the problem complexity rises with each generation. Perhaps there is an inherent bias in these works, forgetting the industrialisation of innovation in mundane structures. The wonder of the local supermarket, reproduced thousands of times, as opposed to the award-seeking skyscrapers of the capital.

He uses terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as an example of resilience of design. He refers of course to the 1993 bombs in the basement. What would he make of the later total failure of the designs in 2001, and was this indeed a failure of that particular building as a system, but a failure of a wider, un-designed system?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Technology Disaster

Here's a story about waste from the streets of England. Generally speaking, the streets of the Kingdom are not strewn with rubbish, by international standards. The systems and infrastructure to support the removal of our wastes might not be the best possible, but they are pretty good.

It wasn't always. Go back a century or two, and you really would be looking at serious daily health hazards, not only in piles of discarded household waste, but also human wastes. Remember the Great Stink? Not many do, that's why I'm glad to plug UCL's Stinkfest.

But I digress. What happens when technologists look at systems for economically collecting waste, with the added requirement of wanting to incentivise waste reduction. This is a new requirement by the way. Back when you could throw everything away, you could run waste as a reactive service. Nowadays there is no "away", and the economist's response is to put a price on waste. From a local council's point of view, this makes sense. Bin-men cost money.

Enter technologists. Let's weigh the bins as we collect, and send you the bill for massive wastefulness. Sounds good, except even if it works in Germany or Shangri-La, it will need installing here. By "it" we mean weighing arms, identifiable bins or houses, recording systems, billing systems, training and all the rest of it. Not a light bulb then, but a complex system. You can expect databases to grind, for people to be standing in the wrong place, and for the odd bit of hardware to get broken. Worse than Terminal 5 on a good day, just like all perfectly normal field tests of things which looked fine in the lab.

Two stories from the press, following a halted trial, (not even a "pilot") in Norfolk:

Daily Mail (hates the government for messing with the bins, and god knows what else) "disaster, devastating blow for the scheme"

Guardian : "Schemes to go ahead"

Partly, these trials got media attention because of the RFID angle "they are spying on our bins, haven't they heard of the Magna Carta?". What most irritates me, aside from the axe-grinding of the Mail, is the complete lack of technological nous. It's obvious to me, admittedly now after years of exposure to the field, that the newer and bigger the tech the more carefully it will have to be prototyped and worked out locally before going live. So it's a "disaster" then? The local Tory MP cheerfully jumps on and pronounces left, right and centre, and tries to shake of the "government-imposed scheme" (the local council would have creamed off a good wodge of the Government grant for trying this out on their patch, and would have been in the front line for savings from a live scheme).

The Grauniad's report on the other hand isn't really looking at the technical risks at all, but sells it as political battle, showing the government's deafness to its critics. It's just as blind to the systems development issues.

The Mail could still be right, there could be serious system-level difficulties with this system, and they could be unique to the UK, or indeed South Norfolk. We just don't know reading these reports.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Girls guiding cats in herds

Here are two more PM/systems blogs.

A Girl's Guide to Managing Projects
Herding Cats

Very observant readers may also note that I've migrated my blogroll from Bloglines to Google reader. It was fairly easy. It's slightly less neat, but it's actually the reader that I use and update now.