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Tim Hwang on the Power of Standards
There are a lot of people who get described as Renaissance Men. Tim Hwang is legitimately a Renaissance Man.
That’s how Noah Brier introduced Tim Hwang at Transition 2014. After a fascinating talk on The Death and Life of Internet Cities last year, we are pleased to have Tim back for this year’s Transition Conference. This time, he’ll expose the invisible power that the standards we adopt impact everything from infrastructure to ad formats. I recently had the opportunity to talk to Tim about his ideas on standards and managed to get a preview of his presentation.
While Tim is a researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York City, it seems he finds more hours in the day than the rest of us to fulfill curiosities and find out-of-the-box solutions to seemingly impossible problems.
It’s that insatiable curiosity that led to his founding the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory (now known as only the Infrastructure Observatory), which in turn informed his profound insights on standards. What started as just an elaborate guise to get an all-access tour of a nuclear power plant in California is now a nationwide research body whose membership comprises what Tim calls “infrastructure enthusiasts.” They focus on the function and impact of infrastructure—from internet protocols to hydroelectric dams to roads that inter- and intra-connect cities.
It was through his activity with the Infrastructure Observatory that he began to explore the large, somewhat anonymous companies operating in the international integrated shipping industry. That research resulted in The Container Guide, a recently published visual guide to understanding the containers used in transporting over 90% of the world’s consumer goods. As Tim describes it, the book is “something like the old Audubon Birding Guides for shipping containers. Where instead of using it to spot a bluejay you can identify a Maersk container and get its whole history.”
For a man who has been designing robots that do rote, non-cognitive legal work, he’s uncovered the captivating power of a mere container.
“It’s a simple technology, if you even want to call it that, which is essentially just a metal box, but what makes it so interesting is that it’s a standard. That makes it really powerful,” Tim explains. “It has less to do with the latest, greatest technology and more to do with getting everyone on the same page with one common standard.”
That’s where you see the huge impact of something so seemingly simple. “Standards become really powerful once there’s the ability to create agreement on it.” Tim recounted the story of how the international shipping industry arrived on the standard we know today, which turned out to be something of an accident of history. (Despite decades of debate and research, the dominant shipping company of the age dictated the standard by refusing to use anything else but their own design—and other companies had no choice but to comply.)
As Tim continued to research infrastructure beyond shipping, he saw standards everywhere, “There are similarities on how a standard actually gets chosen and then how it changes everybody’s successes after that.”
Therein lies the power of standards. As standards are adopted they can rapidly change how a system functions. Tim contextualized this with the example of the Internet. Just as infrastructure standards have defined the width of railroad tracks—and thus the width of trains, how trains are produced, and even how many people can comfortably fit into a single traincarInternet standards have similarly had far-reaching impacts.
Marketing as an entire field has been drastically changed by the Internet, especially in terms of new channels and media used to communicate with customers. But it has more profoundly impacted marketing than just that—it has led marketers to adopt standards in measuring success and value. When the measures of success and value change, so do the specifications for the content.
Adopted standards, regardless of where they come from, have the power to enable systems, allowing them to function and grow. They also have the ability to hinder growth when they aren’t questioned or tested. It’s the invisible power of standards that makes the exploration of them all the more important.
If an entire industry as we know it today was shaped by a metal box—a standard—what other accidents of history are dictating how we operate, how we travel, how we communicate, and how we measure success? Moreover, how do standards come to be and why do people adopt standards?
Join us on September 24th at the TimesCenter in New York City for the Transition Conference and hear more from Tim Hwang (and several other brilliant minds) on how profoundly standards are changing our world.