As the head of one of the world’s recognized standards developing organizations (SDOs), imagine my pure delight in reading an opinion piece in this Sunday’s New York Times entitled The Joy of Standards – Life is a lot easier when you can plug in to any socket. The work, written by Dr. Andrew Russell, the dean of arts and sciences at the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, and Dr. Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science and technology studies at Virginia Tech, espouses the benefits of private, non-government organizations facilitating the development of standards that impact everything around us. The authors use modern examples of things impacted by standards such as electrical plugs fitting into any socket, smartphone connectivity to Bluetooth and the dimensions of a concrete block. Although there are many others they could have pointed to, I also liked their great example from an Arizona State University study that concluded a standard laptop incorporates more than 250 standards.
SDOs provide hundreds of technical, industry and scientific standards that are useful not only to the public each year but also to federal, state and local government, supporting market standardization and business innovation, promoting health, safety and the environment, and saving time and money for governments at all levels. This consensus-based approach ensures that all stakeholders - including (depending on the subject) users, manufacturers, insurance providers, consumers, government regulatory agencies, enforcers, independent experts and academics - can participate and that no special interest can predominate.
To most of the public or policymakers, this work is often not known, not fully appreciated or taken for granted. The reality is SDOs serve the public through the creation of standards that promote reliability, interoperability and quality, bringing economic and other societal benefits and astronomical savings to government.
The savings comes from the fact independent SDOs hold copyright in their standards, and are able to fund their standards development activities from revenue generated from the sale of their standards publications. This allows SDOs to keep the barriers to participation low and to retain their independence and freedom from potential influence by any industry or group. For more than a century, this model has been highly successful and is probably one of the oldest public private partnership. Many SDOs including NFPA also make their standards available for free viewing on their websites.
While we who work in standards developing know the true value of this process, it was great to see it get some broader visibility. I may even hang this quote from the piece on my wall as a daily reminder of the importance of the work we do, “In an age of breathless enthusiasm for the new and 'disruptive,' it’s worth remembering the mundane agreements embodied in the things around us. It’s very ordinariness and settledness of standards that enable us to survive, and to move ahead.”