March 2019

What a Fountain can Tell us About Process Design: Mechanistic isn’t Adaptive

One of the things I really enjoy doing on a sunny day is going out walking.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s windy or cold, as long as there’s no rain, I find it a really enjoyable pastime.  I was recently walking on a really windy day in my hometown, and I walked past this fountain.  

You’ll see from the picture that the fountain isn’t fully active, it’s just bubbling over gently.  In the summer, the jets fire straight into the air, and children (and the occasional adult) can jump in and cool down.

Initially, I’d assumed that the jets had been turned off for the winter, but a few minutes after walking past, I noticed the jets were active again.  This piqued my curiosity—why had they suddenly switched on again—were they on a timer?  My attention was drawn to a small wind speed instrument on a nearby lamppost—you can barely see it in the following photo:

I then made the connection.  The fountain is designed to switch itself off when it’s windy.  This prevents water getting lost from the system, whilst also ensuring that those passing by don’t get an unwelcome surprise when they suddenly get soaked when there is an unexpected gust of wind. Genius!

The Danger of ‘Hard Wiring’

At its essence, this could be considered an example of a mechanistic system that is ‘hard wired’ to respond to its environment.  This is a convoluted way of saying it has been designed to respond in certain pre-designed ways to certain types of stimuli  If the wind increases, it stops the jets.  If the wind stops, it starts the jet.  Job done!

The Importance of “Zooming Out”: Elephants and Trains

If you have ever used the tube (metro) system in London during rush hour, you’ll know it isn’t  the sort of place where you can stand around and admire the surroundings.  Like most bustling cities, there is a focus on movement; there is a sea of people filling every conceivable space.  Anyone who dares move at a glacial pace is at risk of getting swept along with the crowd like a twig in a fast flowing river, or even worse they might be greeted by the passive-aggressive ‘tut’ of an exhausted commuter.  It seems that everyone is determined to get to their destination, trying to edge further and further forward without pushing or making contact with anyone else.  Like some kind of silent and choreographed ‘commuter dance’, It is fascinating to watch, and fascinating to be part of. 

I have travelled on the Jubilee Line from Waterloo Station countless times.  Most times, I am navigating my way through the crowds, with my brain and eyes focussed mainly on the immediate few feet in front of me.  Only fairly recently, when travelling very late at night (when the station was empty) did I look up and notice there is literally an elephant in the room.  More specifically, there is a sculpture of an elephant above the escalators.  Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture 🙂