Design from disaster

Today I was reading about the Victoria Hall disaster of 1883, in which 183 children were crushed to death in a stampede for free toys. They’d pressed into a stairwell that descended to a single, inward-hinged door that had been bolted from the inside. Once the crush began, it was impossible for the adults outside to unlock the door. After the tragedy, laws were passed to ensure safer buildings, a move which notably resulted in the development of the push-bar emergency exit.

This got me thinking about design from disaster. There was nothing to prevent the development of the push-bar exit in 1882, but of course it took a national tragedy to catalyse the public and political will to make it happen. There are plenty of other technologies birthed by similar events, and retrospectively we can put a human price on those innovations. To wit, the push-bar emergency exit cost 183 dead children. Watertight decks and bow-door indicators on roll-on, roll-off ferries required 193 lives lost on the Herald of Free Enterprise. Improved stadium design required the loss of 96 lives at Hillsborough and 56 at Valley Parade. Workplace safety standards in New York cost 146 lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. In 1859, Met Office gale warnings were incepted following the loss of 325 ships and 748 lives in the space of two weeks.

You could say that all of these were disasters waiting to happen, and in a sense they were predictable, but in most cases it took a combination of simultaneous conditions, errors and oversights to happen, the low chances of which helped mask the threat of disaster. It hadn’t happened before, until it did.

So we might say that there’s a certain element of design from disaster in the progress of our technologies. What can we say about this pattern of design — are technologies rushed through instead of grown organically? Do these retrospective designs weigh too heavily on trying to solve a disaster that’s already occurred, and in that single-minded focus, is there a potential for lost opportunities to prevent future crises? If this punctuated development is the case, I think the kind of technology it produces is worthy of study.

Finally, there ought to be role for futurists in predicting disasters needed to advance certain technologies. If that stark message isn’t enough to push legislators to action (and who wants to be the politician who ignored Cassandra’s prophecy?), it might at least help us develop strategies that don’t require huge loss of life to implement better, safer societies.

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