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Creating a more robust world

Andrew Price, Professorial Fellow and international consultant, teaches ecology in Biological Sciences and undertakes marine research in far-flung places. In a world close on financial and environmental meltdown, his new book, Slow-Tech: Manifesto for an Overwound World, argues for greater robustness as an alternative to efficiency at all costs.

Collateral damage

The Royal Bank of Scotland, North Sea cod stocks and Britain’s National Health Service superficially share little in common. But all three have been suffering from overstretch or worse. Adoption of narrow performance measures and strategies is largely to blame, as they consider only short-term success. Collateral damage can also be substantial, when the quest for efficiency minimizes - deliberately or inadvertently - any spare capacity.

Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and its devastating effects, provided a chilling reminder. Over the past seven decades New Orleans and wider Louisiana lost 1,900 square miles of salt marshes. These once provided free coastal defence, but fast-forward development projects paved the way for roads, marinas, condominiums and business facilities. On top of that, the artificial levees, or banks – a very costly engineering solution to replace the salt marshes – proved to be insufficiently substantial to halt the deluge created by Katrina.

Not so expendable

Plainly, the verdant cloak around New Orleans was not so expendable after all. Also, building the levees that little bit stronger - which for most of the time would have seemed excessive - would have provided invaluable insurance and paid off. After all, the Dutch build flood barriers to withstand mother-of-surges, ones that might occur every 10,000 years (rather than 100 years).

Robust solutions

Agriculture, too, is plagued by damage from the quick fix. Yet robust solutions, often surprisingly simple, are often at hand. Take Lazy Dog Tools in Spaunton, a tiny village set in the North York Moors National Park. In 1997, Philip Trevelyan set up the company to make hand tools for farmers and growers. What Trevelyan created turned out to be far more than a slow-tech reaction to weed control through spraying. Use of agrochemicals has an economic as well as environmental downside. In the case of pesticides, UK water companies have to remove them from our drinking water, at a cost of around £120 million per year.

New tools

Far from being inefficient, backward technology, the new tools allow contract Lazy Dog operators, or ‘gangs’, to work for prolonged periods with minimal fatigue, in most weathers. Agricultural sprays, in contrast, can only be used in restricted conditions, adding inefficiency to operations - a matter conveniently brushed aside in most performance evaluations. If it is blowing a gale, for example, neighbours may not appreciate a free dose of herbicide or pesticide falling on their land or garden.

Overkill

Even the modern military fares better with deliberate reserve, or slack. ‘Overkill’ might seem like inefficiency of operations, but invariably it pays off. With 130 miles of passageways, the Cu Chi tunnel complex was the epitome of robustness during the Vietnam War. Low-tech maybe, but it allowed the Vietcong to become invisible. The lowest tunnels were immune even to American B-52 bombs, and instrumental in the US deciding to call it a day.

Space missions

In a high-tech world, nowhere is the importance of slow-tech principles of robustness as great as in space missions. Although built to be fast and to last, the Challenger space shuttle blew up in 1986: just because of a faulty rubber seal or 'O' ring in one of the solid rocket boosters.

Double-check

Worse still, the 1999 Mars climate orbiter ended in pieces simply through failure to spot a mix-up of metric and imperial units. Extra time spent double-checking every single calculation and minute detail, as we now know, would have made the technical safety systems more robust and, quite likely, have paid off.

Not rocket science

And it hardly takes rocket science, or a Harvard MBA, to realise that the failings of the Royal Bank of Scotland and Enron happened for one fundamental reason: keeping too little in reserve - quite literally - plus huge loans and commitments. As Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes remind us in The Three Trillion Dollar War, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t come cheap. That cost knocked a huge dent in even the US economy.

Robustness

Read more about robustness in Slow-Tech: Manifesto for an Overwound World, published by Atlantic Books in January 2009 (www.andrewpricebooks.com)