114 One agreement too far…?

Posted on May 29, 2012 by


The Brooklyn Bridge was the first major suspension bridge, completed in 1883. This basic design was improved upon – over time such bridges more than doubled in length. As confidence in the technology grew, some of the original safety features were discarded as redundant. Other features were sacrificed to cost-cutting, or to daring design: one only has to compare the sleekness of the Golden Gate Bridge with the New York predecessor.

And then the Takoma Narrows Bridge was built in 1940. It failed catastrophically in strong winds shortly after inauguration.


In the course of making changes [to the basic design] we can effectively discard the experience embedded in that which we think we are improving upon. (…) Knowledge and tools have limitations, and until those limitations are discovered – most likely through some unexpected behavior or an outright failure – we can expect to be surprised.[1]

Henry PETROSKI even conjectures a cycle for such unexpected failures: 30 years, or one generation. As planners head for retirement, much of their experience – and I’d say in particular emotional experience – leaves with them. Emotions don’t replace knowledge, but they give it meaning[2], just as practice gives meaning to what we are taught. What the planners take with them is an – often unspoken – sense of the limits of the technology they have been working with. Like trees, technologies grow, but not into the sky. As they grow and evolve, a point is reached where they turn into something else- and fail. We are surprised.

As I was reading PETROSKI’s interesting book on design failures – mainly in bridges – my mind wandered to the failure of the Doha Round. I had been quietly skeptical, since its inception: “too big not to fail”, I muttered then, comparing it with a beached monster snorting fumes.

From a select club of 35 or so countries (prior to the Kennedy Round) GATT had transmogrified into WTO, with its 155 members. The negotiating process had advanced to encompass services, while a plethora of Free Trade Agreements weakened the incentive of many countries to go the extra mile. The decision-making process – consensus – had remained unchanged, but coalition-building had become more complex. Surrogates (NGOs) have emerged – both helping and hindering the process as they went.

The Doha Round is now in limbo. There are many substantive reasons for the impasse. I may add to them “PETROVSKI’s Rule”: after a generation, overconfidence in the “scaling up” process has led to complacency.

I’m comforted in this conjecture by a parallel development, where “scaling up” and negotiating failure has gone hand in hand: the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change[4]. Its conceptual roots lie with the Montreal Protocol of 1987 [3] – which was a success. If phasing out the production of numerous substances believed to be responsible for the depletion of the ozone layer proved feasible – so the thinking went – why not try it with greenhouse gases?

As I said: it is a conjecture, but one that diplomats should be fully cognizant of. Success of a design means that we have moved closer to its limits. Success is just failure postponed.

We can test bridges in wind-tunnels. We cannot test institutions: reason more to be wary of scaling up.

[1]           Henry PETROSKI (2012): To forgive design – understanding failure. Belknap, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass. (p. 343)

[2]           Daniel GOLEMAN (1996): Emotional intelligence. Why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury, London.

[3]           http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montreal_Protocol Due to its widespread adoption and implementation it has been hailed as an example of exceptional international co-operation, with Kofi Annan quoted as saying that “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date has been the Montreal Protocol”.

[4]           http://unfccc.int/2860.php