Emerging Trends in Aviation Safety and Managing Complex Systems
Dr. William B. Rouse, SERC Research Council Member and Research Professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University, joins the National Academy’s National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Committee on Emerging Trends in Aviation Safety.
Rouse, a member of the NAE since 1992, is an expert in several areas relevant to the committee. He has authored a book on the topic entitled, “Failure Management: Malfunctions of Technologies, Organizations, and Society.” His expertise includes individual and organizational decision-making and problem-solving, as well as the design of organizations and information systems. His current research focuses on understanding and managing complex public-private systems such as healthcare delivery, urban systems, and transportation systems, with emphasis on mathematical and computational modeling of these systems for the purpose of policy design and analysis.
The Transportation Research Board (TRB) is one of seven major programs of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). The mission of the TRB is to provide leadership in transportation improvements and innovation through trusted, timely, impartial, and evidence-based information exchange, research, and advice regarding all modes of transportation. The Board’s varied activities annually engage about 8,000 engineers, scientists, and other transportation researchers and practitioners from the public and private sectors and academia, all of whom contribute their expertise in the public interest.
The committee has issued its first report, noting that, “Commercial aviation safety in the United States has improved more than 40-fold over the last several decades, according to industry statistics. The biggest risks include managing safety in the face of climate change, increasingly complex systems, changing workforce needs, and new players, business models, and technologies.”
As an approach to understanding the complexity of failure, Rouse’s approach can be applied to the detection, diagnosis, and mitigation of emerging failures. He proposes a framework “to differentiate proximal, distal, and ultimate causes of failures, as well as causes of inadequate failure management once consequences ensued,” consisting of four levels of abstraction: people, processes, organizations, and society. Rouse points out these are not simply aggregations of individuals, but rather can be used as a lens on the causes of failure.
In the introduction to his book, Rouse states, “Failures often originate at the lowest level of people or physical components. Pumps fail, valves stick, viruses infect people, consumers dismiss new products offerings, people make risky investments, and people consume energy. At the process level, consequences of failures propagate and interventions are introduced to thwart these consequences. The nature and capacities of these processes reflect organizational investment decisions, or lack of investments. Organizations make such decisions in the context of society’s priorities, incentives, values, and norms. Decisions, consequences, and constraints flow up and down. If society does not prioritize failure management, organizations may not invest, processes may not exist or their capacities may be inadequate. Consequences may propagate more easily and interventions may be delayed and not meet demands. Thus, the physical failure for example, is the proximate cause, but poor or inadequate failure management are due to distal and ultimate causes at the process, organizational, and societal levels.”
Read Rouse’s book “Failure Management: Malfunctions of Technologies, Organizations, and Society and learn more about SERC research on the SERC News page.