Monday, June 20, 2005

Standards cause design fragility when used unwisely?

Enterprise architecture is in someways like urban planning. You have systems (buildings) connected by infrastructure (road, rail, sewage etc) and developers and users have to live in that city being built. The city changes over time as new buildings are put up, old ones taken down or extended and the infrastructure evolves. Of course, a city isn't as plastic as software and software doesn't have to obey many physical laws. Anyway, despite these problems, let's assume the metaphor holds and see if we can learn something.

In Europe Le Corbusier had significant traction as an architect and wrote up his ideas on urban planning, which were fundamentally modernist in origin. His ideas centred around zoned standardised accommodation and infrastructure, one of his proposals for a section of Paris is below:

His ideas on urban planning resulted in utopian drawings of homogenous living units in homogenous cities, with urban zones and a grid based model. These ideas have been largely discredited and the results of applying his ideas in the UK, the tower block housing estate (e.g. at Roehampton), have failed with pretty disastrous social results. I believe one of the problems with this modernist approach, where a large area of a city is planned according to a single design approach/theory, is that they allow design failures to effect the entire planned area due to the homogenous nature of the approach. Of course, we could blame the modernist movement as a whole, but that seems harsh. In Chicago, Mies Van Der Rohe, whilst being a modernist, didn't get to build a Brasilia (which was based on Le Corbusier's ideas). He had his modernist intentions bounded. Go to the plaza area in Chicago he designed, and whether you like it or not, it is only one design amongst the many surrounding it. A failure in Van Der Rohe's design approach doesn't break an entire area as the urban plan has been far more eclectic in its choice of approach.

I am tempted, given my initial parallel of urban planning with enterprise architecture to draw a parallel between Le Corbusier's ideas and those of the breed of architect that want all of the enterprise architecture standardised on single choices. If we do this, and our chosen technology fails (e.g. a major vulnerability is found in the single chosen operating system or J2EE platform), then we have effected vast tracts of systems. Of course, standards provide many many benefits, but maybe the trick is to ensure there is enough heterogoneity in our city plans to protect against major design failures in our enterprise architectures.

Perhaps we have more to learn from todays urban planners than we may first realise.