CAN STORYTELLING SAVE THE WORLD?
—— A good story has the power to change everything: humankind, the world—and possibly even the topic of sustainability. Three examples of the impact storytelling can have.
hen Heino Paga drives to work in the morning and punctually gets out of his car on DIN Square in Berlin’s Tiergarten neighborhood at 6:30am, it is often still dark out. Thanks to the DIN 67528 standard (lighting in public parking structures), he can still see just fine. Thanks to DIN EN 18040-1, the doorframes at the German Institute for Standardization (the Deutsches Institut für Normung, or DIN), where Paga works, are tall enough that he doesn’t bump his head on his way in—although he’s 1.90 meters tall.
When Paga enters the DIN building, he crosses a brightly lighted foyer where electric screens explain why standards improve efficiency. Before he enters the elevator, he must first climb a few stairs. Fortunately, among the things DIN 18065 regulates is the width and the rise-to-run ratio of the steps so that Paga and his coworkers don’t trip. There are ten standards regulating elevator safety. DIN 51130 ensures that Paga doesn’t slip on the tiles when he leaves the elevator, and DIN EN 16516 is responsible for guaranteeing that the dark-colored rug in his office doesn’t emit benzene or formaldehyde. You usually don’t even notice them unless they’re missing. And yet standards affect almost everything.
Without them, paper wouldn’t fit into printers (DIN A4, A3, A5), credit cards into wallets or containers onto ships. Sausages would constantly fall through the grates of the grill onto the coals and babies would choke on pacifiers they accidentally swallowed. Without standards, the international movement of goods—and globalization as we know it—would be unthinkable.
The pandemic has also shown how indispensable common standards are. During the crisis, the European Committee for Standardization worked with the EU Commission to create standards, available free of charge, for medical products and personal protective gear. That meant that Europe was to some extent able to compensate for the shortage of protective masks and gloves at the beginning of the pandemic. Instead of tinkering around, non-specialist manufacturers were able to produce urgently needed equipment such as respiratory masks. Important specifications like those in DIN EN 149, the standard for FFP2 protective masks, provided the necessary guidelines. Manufacturers were able to produce quickly and in large quantities, and the products were trusted by governments and consumers.
Standards are considered a seal of quality and safety—worldwide. Along with national standardization organizations such as Germany’s DIN, there are also supranational groups such as European Standards (EN), made up of three organizations, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which promotes consistency among international standards. The more abbreviations a standard uses—DIN, EN, ISO—the more standards it has been verified for.
Independent companies such as TÜV SÜD ultimately verify whether or not a product fulfills the requirements of the respective standard or standards. Digitization is putting pressure on standards overall in this regard, since there aren’t many suitable standards for many new technologies. Whereas at the beginning of the 20th century the economy mainly needed standards for screws, nuts or threads, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, today it needs solutions for cybersecurity, blockchain, self-driving vehicles or interfaces for power grids that communicate with machines or plantsystems, or in the household with air conditioners, heaters or refrigerators, and artificial intelligence.
However, developing uniform testing methods and standards for these types of new technologies is a long and difficult process. For automated driving, for instance, there are still too many unanswered questions, says TÜV SÜD Head of Corporate Accreditation, Standardization and Quality Management Christian Priller. Who is liable in the event of an accident? “And what happens if an autonomously driving vehicle cannot avoid a collision but must decide between hitting an old woman or a baby carriage?” The formation of technical standards must be preceded by a social and legal consensus on the issue, Priller explains. “Right now, however, society and politicians are still in the middle of these ethical and moral discussions.”
No standards, no safety
At the same time, the development and enforcement of globally synchronized standards will determine the acceptance of technologies among manufacturers and consumers. TÜV SÜD and a number of global partners have therefore founded the International Alliance for Mobility Testing and Standardization (IAMTS). The initiative’s goal is to develop globally recognized standards, test scenarios and testing methodologies for the mobility of tomorrow.
Experts in artificial intelligence (AI) from all the TÜV organizations have also joined forces at the newly founded TÜV AI Lab. Together they’re researching how artificial intelligence can be made safer and what requirements it must fulfill in order not to violate fundamental rights of users, such as the right to privacy or to be treated equally.
This is important basic research—even for less-complicated products, every standardization process is more of a marathon than a sprint. In order to be able to chaperone the process from an idea through to a finished standard, DIN has put together a network of 33,500 experts from business, science and research, consumer representatives and public authorities to discuss the pros and cons of each new regulation before DIN publishes a new standard and recommends its application.
Take the seemingly trivial standard for the safety of school backpacks: the manufacturers of fluorescent and luminescent coverings sit face-to-face with a testing institute like TÜV SÜD—which tests whether the backpacks actually reflect light in street traffic—and consumers. As DIN expert Heino Paga explains, even the wording in supposedly insignificant documents is haggled about and fought over in such meetings.
Paga’s job is to uncover redundancies or contradictions with existing regulations in the draft standards. To this end, Paga heads the Process Quality and Testing Group at DIN, also more simply known as the “DIN standards police.” Paga, who his colleagues sometimes call “the bean counter”—a title you really have to work hard to earn at the German Institute for Standardization—knows that a simple slash can sometimes be the result of a painstakingly achieved consensus, sometimes the work of years. He would nevertheless edit it out of an almost finished draft standard if it could lead to misunderstandings.
Paga’s holy writ for such questions is DIN 820-2, the document that regulates how a standard must be structured, designed and written. It even contains instructions for auxiliary verbs—for instance when the standards police should use “may” and when “shall” or “must” is appropriate in the text.
“Standards mean a lot to me,” Paga says. “They provide safety, clarity and make products cheaper,” he explains in a soft voice. Anyone who has ever kneeled over a vacuum cleaner, cursing because the dust bag doesn’t fit, knows exactly what Paga means. Vacuum cleaner manufacturers make a lot of money in the cacophony of ever-changing and ever-new dust bag configurations. The same applies to chargers from manufacturers like Apple. It’s a horror for Paga.
Safe is safe
Even the Romans had standardized water pipes and amphoras, the containers of antiquity, he says. The world is becoming increasingly complex these days, and Paga is certain that standards help make everything that much simpler. They’ve become irreplaceable for businesses, since the time of industrialization at the latest. That there were 25 variants for the valve of a steam locomotive at the turn of the twentieth century is something that would be unthinkable today.
And yet the criticism of standards never stops. “A common reproach,” writes technology historian Günther Luxbacher in a book about the DIN, “is that standards homogenized everyday life, that they ‘turned the variety of life’s beauty into a dreary sameness.’” A more serious accusation is that standards can be abused to make trade more difficult instead of easier. So-called “non-tariff trade barriers,” like technical standards, that apply in target markets can impose expensive conformity or approval procedures on companies hoping to export their products—or even block them from the market entirely. Back in the 1930s, the American car manufacturers Ford and General Motors tried to introduce the American measurement system with feet and inches into the Ford and Opel factories in Germany.
Similar disputes arose a few years ago between Germany and France regarding plugs. There were no uniform standards for the charging plugs of electric cars and the French were bitterly opposed to the German plug configuration. It wasn’t until 2014 that the European Commission put an end to the dispute when it pushed through what is known as the “Type 2 plug,” which was developed by the company Mennekes, based in Germany—a decision that set champagne corks popping at the firm.
No consensus, no standard
To this day, European carmakers have to adjust their products to American standards, whether it be the color of the turn-signal blinker or the characteristics of the windshield wipers. At the same time, foreign companies need to overcome such hurdles in Europe, as well. China represents another powerful player that has recently entered the standards arena. “The Chinese acted more as observers previously,” says innovation economist Knut Blind. “But now they’re playing a massive role, for instance at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) in Geneva, where they wish to add their contributions to global standards.” China’s strategic goal in this is to blanket large parts of the global economy with its own standards, Blind says.
While there used to be competition for patents, standards are more important these days. As Blind explains: “You can co-manage entire ecosystems, particularly in the era of Industry 4.0.” This is more important than protecting individual technologies that may ultimately prove unsuccessful. The plug for the electric car is just one example—but everything else is connected to it at the same time, including the cars, the infrastructure of the charging stations and the energy suppliers.
For someone like Heino Paga, it’s hurtful when his beloved standards are hijacked for such power games. He believes that standards should provide security, not insecurity. He doesn’t think he’s a control freak, but he does like to get to the bottom of things and is interested in the fine print. A number of years ago, as he was building his house, the authorities accused him of building above the prescribed height. Paga had naturally examined all the relevant regulations in detail and worked them all into his building plans. In his view, it wasn’t he who had erred, but the Department of Planning and Building instead. His answer to the accusation ran to seven densely written pages upon which he listed the department’s mistakes. In the end, Paga was allowed to complete his house to his original plans.