Over the past few years, world politics have been governed by a backlash against globalization. From the Brexit mess in Britain to restrictive immigration policies and tariffs in the United States and elsewhere, global economic integration is under assault.
But such integration offers many benefits: a greater variety of less expensive goods, greater opportunities for travel and cultural exchange, a more cosmopolitan world. In this climate, nongovernmental entities may be crucial to preserving them.
Thankfully, engineers have spent the past century building just such international bodies, because they believed that economic integration must remain above politics. These organizations have long set voluntary standards to ensure integration even when the political winds blow against them. This conception of global business standards will be crucial in the years to come as we struggle to preserve the benefits of cohesive systems for international trade, even as politicians battle over how interconnected they want to be.
It is ironic that the British should find themselves in the Brexit mess, because it was British engineers who created the first of the national standards bodies. Their project, a forerunner of today’s British Standards Institution (BSI), was a product of the expansive British Empire. It was founded in 1901 to ensure that industrial products and transportation networks within the United Kingdom and across its empire would be compatible with one another. Although some government representatives were included in its processes, the engineers leading the effort believed such standards should be voluntary, not government-mandated.
As such, they needed to build buy-in from companies through persuasion, not coercion. They established technical committees of experts representing both producers and users of a particular product — such as steel companies and railroads on committees to discuss steel rails for railroad tracks — as well as engineers unaffiliated with either side to represent the common interest. This balance prevented any one set of stakeholders from dominating the process and, while time-consuming, assured that all positions were heard and considered so the resulting standards would be widely adopted.
The British model was copied by other national bodies in subsequent decades, thanks in part to the evangelism of Charles le Maistre, the long-serving secretary of BSI. Le Maistre successfully encouraged engineers in France, the United States, the Soviet Union, Sweden and a half-dozen other countries to follow the British example.
But national standard bodies weren’t enough for British electrical engineers and industrialists, including le Maistre. They also promoted the first private, sector-based international standards organization, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), created in 1906 and still active today. IEC’s standards expanded the market for electrical products and system components such as turbines and transformers by assuring compatibility and lowering prices (since standardized items can be made in larger, cost-saving batches). This made it possible to establish Europe’s high-voltage electrical grid.
Le Maistre would serve as general secretary of this organization for close to a half-century. Late in his life, he also helped found the post-World War II global standard-setting body, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
IEC and ISO have been the center of a global network ever since. In the aftermath of World War II, the vision of the activists in the international community of standard setters, and their belief that such standards were too important to be distorted by politics, allowed these organizations to navigate the minefield of the war's victors and vanquished, as well as the divisive politics of the nascent Cold War.
Although standard setters from the victorious countries and some of the neutrals originally formed ISO, le Maistre and other leaders used personal diplomacy to bring the defeated countries into the organization, several years before they were accepted into the United Nations. They also worked hard to keep the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries in the international standards bodies throughout the Cold War.
During the postwar decades, a regional standards organization also arose in Europe. Olle Sturen, a Swedish engineer and standard setter, worried that the new European Economic Community, from which the European Union (E.U.) grew, would exclude Swedish industrial products from the lucrative markets of Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. As a result, Sturen worked with British and German engineers to create a private industrial standardization body for all of Europe: CEN.
The European Economic Community would maintain tariffs on some goods from Sweden, the United Kingdom and other countries outside the agreement, but CEN assured that across the continent, industrial products, along with the increasingly complex transportation systems that moved goods from one country to the next, would be technically compatible, eliminating many nontariff barriers to trade. These technical committees worked for years to reach consensus on everything from the size and shape of screws to the characteristics of shipping pallets and truck bodies. The standards they developed were voluntary, but they were usually widely adopted simply because all the key stakeholders had been at the table.
When Sturen became secretary general of ISO in the late 1960s, a position he held through the mid-1980s, he pursued two major goals: speeding up the establishment of international standards and expanding the standards community worldwide. One of his priorities was setting global standards for intermodal shipping containers, which helped transform global trade. Those big metal boxes stacked up on the world’s largest ships, then transferred to railroad cars or trucks to reach their final destinations, bring us most consumer goods and make possible today’s global supply chains.
Some economists believe that the cost savings generated by container standardization have had more impact on the massive increase in global trade than anything the World Trade Organization (WTO) has done. Sturen’s other early priorities — standards for connecting computers and for dealing with atmospheric pollution — have also had a significant impact on global economic integration.
To expand the world standards community, Sturen encouraged formation of national standards bodies in developing countries so they could join in international standard setting. His efforts reflected a fervent belief that standard-setting must transcend politics — whether around Brexit, the WTO or other national or international political issues. This could prove pivotal as international trade and global connectedness comes under attack.
CEN standards and the rules that govern them are sticky enough that Brexit, for example, probably will not undo them if it eventually takes place. In February 2018, before the British Parliament got down to serious discussion of what Brexit would really mean, BSI declared that it could and should remain a full member of European standards bodies. After all, those bodies are European (not just E.U.) organizations, and BSI can remain a member as long as it agrees that, when a European standard is developed, BSI will adopt it as a British national standard. While some hardcore Brexiteers might object, the standardizers believe that the U.K. should stay focused on European and global standards and the markets they support, whether or not they leave the E.U.
BSI recognizes that consumers worldwide, including those in the U.K., have benefited from international standards because they have been key to expanding global markets. And standard-setting organizations will be crucial in maintaining the benefits of a global market, especially as politicians posture and threaten. These efforts will benefit citizens around the globe through lower prices and faster shipping.
International standards bodies did so long before governments embraced globalization, and they’ll keep doing so even if governments foolishly reject such interconnectedness today.