Policy as a Problem in Engineering

I couldn’t resist attending this talk. It wasn’t especially well-attended, and I think the audience that appeared was not entirely receptive. I enjoyed it though.

Corey King
President, Energetics Research and Engineering

Design Synthesis of Multistable Equilibrium Systems and the World Development/Energy Path

Design synthesis can be thought of as picking a desired outcome and then figuring out how to achieve that outcome as well as determining if it is even possible. In this presentation I will discuss the design synthesis methodology for a class of engineering systems and how the design synthesis context could be used for future planning of world development and energy resource usage.

The engineering systems discussed are termed Multistable Equilibrium (MSE) systems. MSE systems are those physical systems, usually mechanical components, that can reside in more than one stable equilibrium position. Each position can have a different configuration, stiffness, or local frequency response to achieve multiple functionality in the same device.

The MSE design methodology is based upon shaping energy curves. This concept of ‘shaping the curve’ will then be expanded to discuss curves that can describe future energy resource usage. Any given desired shape of a ‘future curves’ has much to say about short, medium, and long term preferences and goals. The chosen shape of a future energy curve also entails ethical issues related to sustainability.

I liked seeing someone try to apply control theory to the big big picture. I felt vindicated when he talked about what I would call the multiple regimes of the earth system. He independently concluded that effective reasoning about the world changes as time scales become longer.

Interestingly, he had a military/security time scale that surprised me. King suggests that this time scale, the one where you try to keep ahead of competing countries so you can be safe, was intermediate between the economic and the environmental time scale. As a pretty much rootless person, this whole way of thinking has always been alien to me. It may be helpful in getting certain other mindsets past the purely econometric viewpoint, though.

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Economists vs Engineers

For those wandering in here without context, I am advocating a rethinking of economics in the light of sustainability issues in general and climate change in particular.

Consider minutes 4 through 7 of this video of a Google Tech Talk by Van Jacobson.

“It’s not that the solution we have is a bad one, it’s that the problem has changed.”

I’d like to see this sort of breadth of vision coming from economic thinkers. (I’m not saying it never does, of course, but it doesn’t seem that real alternatives bubble to the top the way they do in other applied disciplines.)

If you are a bit technical you will find the rest of the presentation, which goes into detail about these revolutions in the data communication sphere, interesting as well.

Why is there such little prospect of a Copernican revolution in economic thinking? Do people really think that the circumstances of the past two centuries as generalized by economics are invariant? That the system can have no regimes? That there is only one possible correct way of looking at aggregate behavior and that we already have it?

[Update: Yes, apparently some people are perfectly happy to go that far without even a hint of humility. See the comments to this entry. They must have some powerfully compelling evidence and rigorous arguments. It sure would nice to see these.]

Many people think the calling of a scientist is in some way higher than that of the engineer, but frankly I am not at all convinced. Scientists seek truth, and engineers seek solutions. The circumstances we are in require solutions, and so the engineering mentality will be more valuable for the foreseeable future.

We need more pragmatic economics. Ambitious economists ought to let go of this bizarre pretension that the world’s economic system is anything but an artifact, and will start to think about how to redesign it to account for the fact that the problem has changed.