May 23 2013


Reviewed by Lawrence Susskind, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

technology globalization and

Technology, Globalization And Sustainable Development: Transforming the Industrial State by Nicholas A. Ashford and Ralph P. Hall, Yale University Press, 752pp

Ashford and Hall have produced a mammoth volume explaining why technology change and globalization are the keys to addressing the three most important dimensions of sustainability – the economy, work, and the environment. At the heart of their analysis is a belief that national and international governments can produce industrial policies that will “encourage or require environmentally sustainable production, products and energy-related activities through the tools of environmental policy and regulation.” They describe ways that the industrial state might be transformed, covering everything from advancing worker health and safety to techniques for restructuring international trade and finance. In the final analysis, though, their prescriptions only make sense if they are right about co-optimization, that is, the notion that economic development, environmental protection, and more worker-oriented employment can be achieved simultaneously, and need not be traded off or balanced against each other.

More than others writing about sustainable development, Ashford and Hall focus on industrial and trade policies that can stimulate “revolutionary technology innovation.” Their list of ways of overcoming the obstacles to sustainability run the gamut from education and human resource development to more extensive stakeholder involvement, to new approaches to underwriting the costs of sustainable development. In the end, though, everything comes back to government’s willingness to intervene. They analyze the “opportunity and capacity” of the government to act, making a case that crises create opportunities and social innovation can enhance capacity. What they are less clear about, though, is why there might be a sudden willingness on the part of national governments, locked in as they are to laissez faire strategies, to move in the activist and social welfare-oriented direction needed to achieve sustainable development.

May 23 2013


Reviewed by Kelly Heber, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


The Banana Tree at the Gate: A History of Marginal Peoples and Global Markets in Borneo by Michael R. Dove, Yale University Press, 2011, 352 pp.

The title of Michael Dove’s The Banana Tree at the Gate references a proverb local to Borneo, where if you leave something of value exposed, outsiders will exploit it or take the fruit for themselves. Though this book details the centuries of unequal terms of trade between the marginalized Kantu Dayak peoples of Indonesian Borneo and the rest of the world, Dove does it in a way that highlights the resilience of the people as opposed to their victimhood. His account of the adaptability of indigenous people in Indonesia matches my own experiences living with the Iban in Malaysian Borneo, where traditional longhouses were dotted with satellites.

Dove uses political ecology to inform his account of smallhold Indonesian pepper farmers, detailing the inherent structural exploitation that arises from a long history of forced competition with large scale plantations in liberalized markets. Despite the difficulties that arise from marginalization, the Kantu Dayak carry on their traditional smallholder farming structure through hundreds of years of inequality inherent in globalized markets, spanning from the colonial Dutch regime to the present neoliberal capitalist economy.

Woven throughout Dove’s historical account of pepper and rubber cultivation is the Hikayat Banjar, a historical volume that details the lives and legends of Borneo’s kings, but also includes kingly advice on the management of Borneo’s natural resources. Most surprising were the warnings issued by kings in the volume over the ruin that exploitative colonial trade will assuredly bring the smallholders of Borneo. Dove does not cast the pepper farmers as victims of global trade’s steady march towards neoliberalism, however. This provides an exciting contrast to other political ecology publications that leave a gaping, poststructural vacuum after establishing a history of marginalization.

May 23 2013

FLEXIBILITY IN ENGINEERING DESIGN by Richard de Neufville and Stefan Scholtes

 Reviewed by Todd Schenk, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Flexibility in Engineering Design
Flexibility in Engineering Design by Richard de Neufville and Stefan Scholtes, MIT Press, 2011, 312 pp

For all our engineering marvels, the world has seen its share of white elephants and design failures – bridges to nowhere, communications networks out-of-date by the time they are deployed, and dikes overtopped leading to flooding. Perhaps these problems are to be expected; designers and engineers are always confronted with significant biophysical, social and economic uncertainty, and no model is perfect. Furthermore, the world is constantly changing, making different designs optimal at different points in time. The conventional approach to design is to use average or worst-case forecasts, add in safety factors and proceed as though we know what the future holds. Unfortunately, this leads to wasted resources when projects are overdesigned and failure when they are underdesigned.

de Neufville and Scholtes make a compelling case for another approach. Instead of preparing a single forecast of a possible future, they argue for building in flexibility so that engineered projects can be adapted easily as conditions change. One example they present is the bridge over the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal. When it was constructed in the 1960s, its designers had the foresight to make it strong enough to hold a second deck at some point in the future, if that became necessary. They also included a railroad station underneath the toll plaza in case rail connections were ever added. Thirty years later, their foresight paid off when a second deck carrying commuter rail lines was constructed at modest cost and little disruption to the transportation system.

While it may sound simple, the challenges associated with shifting the way project design proceeds, from the traditional predict, plan and build approach to something more iterative should not be underestimated. Designers and engineers need to rethink the way they use forecasting models. Budgeting and capital planning need to allow for longer-term project adaptation. de Neufville and Scholtes introduce a variety of tools to support this shift, including phasing projects and investments, Monte Carlo simulation for exploring scenarios, and dynamic forecasting to highlight uncertainties.

Strategies for making planning and design nimbler can not come soon enough, given that climate change is increasing uncertainty and budgets are regularly stretched. Flexibility should become the new design norm. This book represents both a manifesto for this important shift as well as an early guidebook instructing us how to get there.