From The Washington Post
Over the past few years, world politics have been governed by a backlash against globalization. From the Brexit mess in Britain to restrictive immigration policies and tariffs in the United States and elsewhere, global economic integration is under assault.
But such integration offers many benefits: a greater variety of less expensive goods, greater opportunities for travel and cultural exchange, a more cosmopolitan world. In this climate, nongovernmental entities may be crucial to preserving them.
Thankfully, engineers have spent the past century building just such international bodies, because they believed that economic integration must remain above politics. These organizations have long set voluntary standards to ensure integration even when the political winds blow against them. This conception of global business standards will be crucial in the years to come as we struggle to preserve the benefits of cohesive systems for international trade, even as politicians battle over how interconnected they want to be.
It is ironic that the British should find themselves in the Brexit mess, because it was British engineers who created the first of the national standards bodies. Their project, a forerunner of today’s British Standards Institution (BSI), was a product of the expansive British Empire. It was founded in 1901 to ensure that industrial products and transportation networks within the United Kingdom and across its empire would be compatible with one another. Although some government representatives were included in its processes, the engineers leading the effort believed such standards should be voluntary, not government-mandated.
As such, they needed to build buy-in from companies through persuasion, not coercion. They established technical committees of experts representing both producers and users of a particular product — such as steel companies and railroads on committees to discuss steel rails for railroad tracks — as well as engineers unaffiliated with either side to represent the common interest. This balance prevented any one set of stakeholders from dominating the process and, while time-consuming, assured that all positions were heard and considered so the resulting standards would be widely adopted.
The British model was copied by other national bodies in subsequent decades, thanks in part to the evangelism of Charles le Maistre, the long-serving secretary of BSI. Le Maistre successfully encouraged engineers in France, the United States, the Soviet Union, Sweden and a half-dozen other countries to follow the British example.
But national standard bodies weren’t enough for British electrical engineers and industrialists, including le Maistre. They also promoted the first private, sector-based international standards organization, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), created in 1906 and still active today. IEC’s standards expanded the market for electrical products and system components such as turbines and transformers by assuring compatibility and lowering prices (since standardized items can be made in larger, cost-saving batches). This made it possible to establish Europe’s high-voltage electrical grid.
Read the full post at The Washington Post.
JoAnne Yates is the Sloan Distinguished Professor of Management and a Professor of Managerial Communication and Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management.
Craig N. Murphy is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College.