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Engineering Rules: A new book from MIT Sloan School of Management explores how the often-overlooked process of standardization helps accelerate global economic growth

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The book has implications for economic integration in the era of Brexit and trade wars

Cambridge, Mass., June 11, 2019—A new book by MIT Sloan School of Management’s explores one of the key invisible infrastructures of the modern world: private voluntary industrial standards.

Drawing on a century and a half of archival materials, interviews, personal correspondence, and observation, Yates and Murphy illuminate the principles that inspired the standardization movement, the ways its leaders endeavored to realize their ambitions, and the challenges that standard-setting bodies grapple with today.

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The book, Engineering Rules—which Yates co-wrote with Craig Murphy, a Professor at Wellesley College—traces the evolution of international standard-setting systems and shows how unseen groups of engineers have been instrumental in making our technologies work together for more than a century. The book is published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“The non-governmental organizations that set voluntary standards in everything from computer batteries to screw threads, from planes and trains to household electric plugs, and from transmission lines to shipping containers, are an incredibly powerful force in the modern economy,” says Yates, the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management at the school. “But despite their enormous importance and impact on our daily lives, the work of these standards bodies often goes unnoticed.”

Drawing on a century and a half of archival materials, interviews, personal correspondence, and observation, Yates and Murphy illuminate the principles that inspired the standardization movement, the ways its leaders endeavored to realize their ambitions, and the challenges that standard-setting bodies grapple with today.

Voluntary standard setting in an organized form dates back to the 1880s in Europe and the United States. Committees of engineers that were initially typically sponsored by engineering societies and later by standard–setting organizations, began creating standards that would be adopted by manufacturers to satisfy the needs of corporate customers.

JoAnne Yates: International standards bodies preserve economic integration

“By the 1920s, standardizers began to think of themselves as pivotal to world peace and global prosperity,” says Yates. “They clung to this belief through two world wars. After the second World War, these organizations transcended the divisive politics of the Cold War to create standards that gave rise to global economic interconnectedness. They were adamant that such standards were too important to be influenced by politics.”To illustrate this point, Yates and Murphy tell the story of Olle Sturén. Sturén was a Swedish engineer and standard setter who worked with British and German engineers to form a private industrial standardization body for all of Europe: CEN. Subsequently, as secretary general ISO, Sturén worked to expedite the creation of international standards and expand the worldwide standards community. One of his main goals was setting global standards for intermodal shipping containers—those big metal boxes that transport goods on ships, railroad cars, and trucks.

“Container standardization helped make possible today’s global supply chains,” says Yates. “Some economists say that container standardization has had a bigger impact on the enormous growth in global trade than anything the World Trade Organization has done.”

To expand the world standards community, Sturén promoted the establishment of national standards bodies in developing countries so they could join in international standard setting. He firmly believed in the broadest possible internationalism.

This view of global business standards could prove pivotal as international trade and global connectedness comes under attack, according to Yates. “Standards underpin global economic and technological integration, cutting across national borders and political debate,” she says.

“Even if Brexit eventually happens and all-out trade wars are waged, the web of interconnectedness created by standards will not be undone, and engineers will quietly continue to perform their important work.”

About MIT Sloan School of Management

MIT Sloan School of Management is where smart, independent leaders come together to solve problems, create new organizations, and improve the world. Learn more at mitsloan.mit.edu.

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