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Thomas Fisher on Disaster and Design

Coney Island after Hurricane Sandy. Source: New York Observer

“In science, almost all experiments happen in controlled laboratory settings, so that if an experiment fails — as they often do — no one gets hurt and we can learn from the failure in order to conduct a more successful experiment next time. In design, though, we have few laboratories. Design experiments, in contrast, often happen at full scale and in real time, with the potential for great harm and tremendous cost should they fail — as they sometimes do.

“Many of the human-generated disasters we ave witnessed in recent years show the catastrophic nature of design experiments gone awry. Never drilled oil wells over a mile underwater? Never allowed minimally regulated sub-prime mortgages? Never pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere before? No problem. We’ve already conducted those experiments on ourselves and we have learned just how destructive their failure can be.

“Because we don’t recognize these and other disasters as failed design experiments, we also don’t talk about the failures as scientists do theirs. Politicians call hearings, the media seeks blame, the public demand compensation, and those responsible for the failures point fingers at others, but too few of us try to understand the deeper systemic error from which many of these disasters arise.

“Instead we make make a few more laws, invest in some new technology, increase regulations as much as politically possible, maybe fire a few scapegoats, and hope that the disaster won’t happen again. But all to often, the thinking behind the catastrophe remains unchanged, and we go on conducting deadly experiments on ourselves and on our natural environment.”

— Thomas Fisher in Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design, 2012

This is part of the Polis collection of quotes related to cities.

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