Sunday, January 2, 2011

Responsible people do the right thing

I was watching a discovery channel show about traffic (I think it was called The Truth about Traffic) when I learned about a fascinating experiment in traffic engineering.  The show featured the city of Dracthen Netherlands where they:
[....] removed almost all of its traffic lights. Major intersections have been converted to roundabouts, smaller intersections just let drivers work make decisions on their own.
The project was pioneered by a Dutch traffic engineer named Hans Monderman who said this of the Dracthen experiment "We want small accidents, in order to prevent serious ones in which people get hurt."  The article goes on to say:
Instead of relying on a set of hard rules, drivers are asked to take their safety, and the safety of others, into their own hands. The result is that people are more aware, more careful and drive slower, but are far less frustrated while driving. Bikes and walkers now rule the roads and can pretty much travel non-stop around town.
Wow.  Remove the hard rules and give people control and their safety increases?!  The Discovery channel show was even more bold and it essentially argued that the instruments of safety in place in American roadways, traffic lights, signs, paint, merge lanes, etc. actually subvert the safety they aim to provide.  Here's why...  The enable people to be autonomous man-machines while driving.  People are individuals disconnected from each other because the road system creates the illusion of safety.  "It's a red light, of course no one is in the intersection."  BANG!  In Drachten and other shared space they seek to put people in control and to connect them to each other (note the eye contact comment above)...  To make people responsible NOT the system.

So...  Does this apply more generally?

I was thinking about it in the context of work where we often talk about process and tools for managing software development.  The struggle is that it rarely fits perfectly and that often the tools constrain in some way or you have to hack around them, etc.  In wrestling with that it dawned on me.  Perhaps if we ditch the tools and put software developers in control that they'll do the right thing?  Much like drivers in Drachten...

A couple of caveats are probably in order:
  1. The shared space model relies on responsible people.  Clearly drunks will continue to exist and are likely to kill people.  That's true regardless of system.  That said if you shift driving behavior I bet even drunks driver safer (rather than barreling down the highway at 100mph confident in the paint and stop lights... a bullet looking for a victim)...  A software management of the same shared space model would require hiring "responsible" people (maybe even more important than smart, capable, skilled people?)
  2. The model had SOME structure/process.  There were roads and roundabouts.  The point though is that it was the RIGHT structure.

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