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When failure is an option

From pacemakers to power-plants, we are surrounded by technologies that cannot be allowed to fail. For this reason, we must know the reliability of such technologies before we approve them. The high stakes demand high certainty, yet such knowledge is often more ambiguous than we are led to believe.

Downer's paper 'When Failure is an Option: Redundancy, reliability and regulation in complex technical systems' explores our ability to understand complex machines by focusing on the history and logic of 'redundancy' in mechanical engineering. Using civil aircraft as a case study, it shows how reliability assessments of potentially hazardous technologies are built on redundancy, and explains why that foundation is frailer than it appears.

John Downer is a Research Officer at the ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR) at the London School of Economics. He is author of "When the Chick Hits the Fan: Representativeness and Reproducibility in Technological Testing." in Social Studies of Science. Vol. 31 No.1 Feb. 2007 pp.7-26

About CARR

The ESRC Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation (CARR) is an interdisciplinary research centre at LSE. Our core intellectual work focuses on the organisational and institutional settings for risk management and regulatory practices.

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The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.