Resilience Engineering

By Paula Lau

Most people who know me well might be surprised by this — I actually enjoy reading Popular Mechanics magazine! There’s something fascinatingly mysterious about what engineers, scientists, and people who use the left sides of their brain think about. These intriguing thinkers translate ideas into the everyday objects, conveniences, and technological advancements I have come to take for granted. I believe the reason it is so interesting to me is because often when I’m reading articles about the latest innovations, I’m amazed at what people come up with. Charles H. Duell, a 1899 commissioner with the U.S. patent office, is widely quoted as saying, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Apparently, Mr. Duell never read a PM magazine!

Recently, an article in the October 2009 issue entitled, “Ready for Anything” caught my eye. This article was all about the concept of Resilience Engineering. In a nutshell, the article discussed the need for engineers to design systems and products that have the unthinkable disaster in mind.  They need to ask the question, what if this happens? One example the author, Glenn Reynolds, discusses is the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster. If you remember, the spacecraft disintegrated on re-entry into the atmosphere due to a piece of foam that had broken off and damaged the thermal panels upon takeoff. Now, it is true that most disasters could be averted if we were able to experience life with 20/20 hindsight, but Reynolds points out that through a series of missteps, and a “better, cheaper approach” safety margins gradually narrowed, and we all know the end result.

I began to think about Resilience Engineering from a more human standpoint. Do we live our lives in such a way that we can avoid disasters in the future? Obviously, there is no way to prepare for every sad event that might occur, but there are definitely things that we can do and/or avoid that will keep catastrophe at bay. For instance, we’ve all watched in horror at the frighteningly quick descent of an American icon, Tiger Woods. It’s easy to sit in judgment of him, but it is extremely important to examine our own lives rather than cast stones. Are you involved with people, associates, or co-workers who are involved in less than ethical practices? Have you gotten involved in some habit, relationship, career, or other practice that may not stand up to the light of day? What about the way you are spending your money? Are you spending money that you don’t technically have — i.e., loans, credit cards? Or are you wisely budgeting and planning for the future with an eye on the reality of your financial situation?

Another point Reynolds makes is that a system can look solid year after year, so much so that we begin to take it for granted. An example? The infrastructure of a city. Everything is fine until one of those underground water systems is damaged. What a mess! Are you investing the time, energy and resources that you should be on your children, family and marriage? Or, have you been letting those important relationships take second place to something that in the grand scope of eternity will not mean much?

As a therapist I recognize that it is so much easier to invest in prevention rather than rehabilitation. In resilience engineering the solution is a simple one…have a backup plan in place, consider the systems and how they work together. Recognize the dangers of taking things for granted or ignoring how interdependent most systems are. Even in the 21st century, life continues to hand out consequences for bad behavior and poor judgment.

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