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Engineering standards have long supported the world economy. But future challenges abound.

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As you read this sentence on a computer or smartphone screen, you benefit from a wide variety of international standards.

From software languages to computer batteries, from small screws in electronic devices to large nuts and bolts in power plants, from electrical impulses to transmission lines – the use and design of all these elements has been defined by standards set by international non-governmental organizations that often operate under the radar.

 

“The system that has evolved to set voluntary standards is enormously important to our economy, but it’s also overlooked,” said JoAnne Yates, MIT Sloan professor and co-author of the new book “Engineering Rules,” which examines the nearly 140-year-history of setting global standards. “These standards bodies are an enormous part of what makes the modern economy work, but no one pays much attention to them.”

The slow, deliberate process of standardization has helped power economic growth. However, the internet age has changed the way that standards bodies work, with less balanced sets of stakeholders making faster decisions.

That means it’s time to pay attention. “They’re trading speed for balance today,” Yates said. “Balance among producers and users was important in terms of achieving compromise and adoption. Is it still possible to do this in a world of rapidly changing technologies?”

The first wave of standards: For the common good

Yates and co-author Craig N. Murphy, a professor of international relations at Wellesley College, define three eras, or waves, of the movement to set standards.

During the first wave, which began in the 1880s and lasted until World War II, national standards organizations were established to bring together the key stakeholders that would be affected by a particular standard. For example, the work to set standards for railroad tracks in the United States involved both railroads and steel manufacturers. Efforts in the U.S. and the United Kingdom to set screw thread standards likewise involved those who made the screws as well as the manufacturers and artisans who used them.

With the emphasis on standards that would improve the common good, through improved safety as well as economic growth, businesses sent high-level engineers or executives with both the expertise and the authority to reach compromise. “The process had to be something that everyone agreed on,” Yates said.

 

From the beginning, both businesses and governments embraced the voluntary process of setting and adopting standards. Businesses preferred that the government did not regulate the process, Yates said, while governments preferred that private organizations do the hard work of negotiating standards that had the buy-in necessary for voluntary adoption, but that they could then enforce if they wished.

This approach also allowed for the formation of non-governmental international standards bodies. That included the International Electrotechnical Commission focused on electrical matters in the early 1900s as well as the ISA – the International Federation of the National Standardization Associations – a body composed of national standards organizations, with a broader scope in the late 1920s. Though both went dormant during World War II and ISA did not survive it, the stage was set for expansion of global standard setting in the years after the war.

The second wave: Transcending politics

This second wave lasted from the end of the war until the late 1980s. In 1946 standardizers in the victorious countries formed the International Organization for Standardization, which collaborated with the International Electrotechnical Commission in electrical matters. Both organizations made a concerted effort to admit the defeated Axis nations as well as to retain the Soviet Union in spite of Cold War tensions, Yates said.

“They believed in the standards movement, and they believed that standards should transcend politics,” she said. In fact, numerous former Axis nations were admitted to the ISO before they were admitted to the United Nations. Multiple meetings occurred behind the Iron Curtain, and the ISO even adopted Russian as an official language (in addition to English and French), albeit with the Soviet Union paying for translations.

Efforts to put politics aside and set international standards helped create a global market. Intermodal shipping containers now come in standard sizes that may be carried by trucks, trains, and ships worldwide, thanks to prolonged ISO negotiations in the 1960s and 1970s. These containers greatly reduced shipping costs and helped expand the global economy.

Yates said the groundwork that the international organizations laid during this second wave is poised to withstand some of the political anxieties of today, such as Great Britain’s threatened exit from the European Union and the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.

If Brexit occurs, “there are still a set of standards that are not limited to the European Union but apply across Europe,” Yates said. “These standards will at least eliminate non-tariff  barriers to trade.” And globally, “International standards can ensure technical compatibility and support economic integration, in spite of tariffs.”

The third wave: Faster, but not necessarily better

The final wave of standard-setting began with the internet age. It is defined, Yates said, by new private organizations more concerned with increasing the speed of standard-setting – reflecting the rapid pace of technological development — than with assuring balanced stakeholder representation, which can slow the pace. These new bodies include the Internet Engineering Task Force, which creates standards for the internet, and corporate consortia in which the needs of users often take a backseat to the needs of producers, Yates said.

“The balance of producers and users was important to getting voluntary adoption of standards,” Yates said, because it assured buy-in by the key stakeholders. “Anything that jeopardizes that balance becomes a little worrisome.”

At the same time, businesses are nominating more junior employees to participate in the process of developing standards, rather than the engineers-turned-executives who participated in container standardization, for example.

“If you want standards to be the platform on which innovation can occur, it’s good to have people at the table who have enough knowledge and authority to compromise,” she said. “When you have people who are low on the totem pole, they are less likely to feel that they are allowed to do that.”

Going forward, Yates said, older institutions such as the ISO as well as newer groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and corporate consortia would be wise not to forget the balanced deliberative approach to developing standards that has made it possible for nations to build networks that transmit electricity, enable communications, and move millions of people every day.

“As industry has pushed for faster standards, the traditional system has been somewhat weakened,” she said. “People now see the traditional system as old and stodgy and slow, but they don’t recognize that what made it slow also made it valuable, building buy-in as it created the voluntary standards.”

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