Asset Management and the "Precautionary Principle"

When I find myself washing the car, I realise that this is a classic distraction activity: I know I should be writing a presentation (or whatever) but I lack motivation and/or inspiration!

I notice that in business or government organisations this has a parallel - politicians will establish an Inquiry (preferably reporting safely after their tenure!) relating to awkward questions or challenges. Some large corporates tend to deny bad news or public relations, sometimes until it is much worse or too late. Can structured systems, such as asset management, help us deal with issues earlier? 

The ‘precautionary principle’ seems to be in short supply around the world’s governments recently. More and more pressure groups claim that ‘there is no evidence of harm’ whenever concerns arise about drugs, genetic modification, ‘quantitative easing’, AI, driverless vehicles - pick your cause! Perhaps wilfully, perhaps ignorantly (neither is good), those involved refuse to recognise that if there were to be such evidence it might already be too late because the rates of change are slow and gathering statistics agreed to be significant would be difficult and arguable. Instead of rational debate and true consensus, we seem to see more and more battles of different beliefs.

Perhaps it is only human to address challenges that seem to be soluble? But it makes no sense to create risk registers, identify risks, and then ignore mission endangering or potentially lethal ones to address branding or some comparatively ephemeral issue (I hope I'm not being too flippant.) This is still true even if it is popular because it is cheaper or easier… Of course, none of this is new: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” (John Heywood in 1546)


Some recent research from Germany should give everyone pause for thought. In just a quarter of a century there has been a 75% reduction in flying insect biomass - in nature reserves (not farm land)!

I am old enough to recall the large numbers attracted to car headlights at night. In country lanes there could be reduced visibility at some times of year because of the vast numbers of insects flying. No more! You do not need to be a lepidopterist to be worried. Yet, in some media interviews people thought it was good to have fewer insects! This decline is apparently a relatively straight line graph, not yet tailing off. Just consider, for a moment, the implications for plants, crops and food supply. 


One of the trickiest activities in asset management decision-making is the issue of low probability / high impact risks. This is no longer low probability, is it? But which governments will prioritise this alarming danger rather than electoral, economic or other more exciting and short-term matters?

I do not regard accidents involving driverless vehicles as low probability either. But I was astonished to hear a leading car manufacturer argue this week that there was no need for its algorithms to consider the ‘right’ action when approaching a collision because “humans do not currently get examined on this for driving tests”. The choices given were of the nature of: if the vehicle computer is aware of nearby obstacles should it choose to kill the mother and baby on the roadside or an adjacent car with elderly occupants? The interviewee seemed unable to accept that drivers currently answer to courts and conscience. Given the mix of proprietary guidance systems soon to be controlling vehicles near you, I wonder how much confidence you have in the management of these assets!

Unravelling accountability in the courts will either preserve the jobs of lawyers for years or we have the wonderful prospect of AI courts judging AI vehicles… The precautionary principle, anyone?