Why I’m Passionate about Standards……and you should be too!

By Marianne Drain, Commercial Officer, Foreign Commercial Service at the U.S. Mission to the European Union

There’s a look I get when I tell people I work on Standards. Eyes glaze. Subjects change. People suddenly need to use the restroom. Upon entering the EU, an immigration official, after asking a routine question on work, once told a Standards colleague, “wow – that sounds really boring!”

So, I know what I’m up against here. But stay with me. I’m here to tell you why you should care about Standards, and why I’m a passionate advocate of the U.S. approach to Standards development.

A Standard outlines the fundamentals that make things work. It’s the playbook for how something should be manufactured, a process should be run, or how to deliver a product or service. A Standard is an agreed way of doing things. Technical experts come together and reach a consensus based on their expertise, and a Standard is created to compile the best of this wisdom for the benefit of the users of that Standard.

Most people don’t think about Standards – or are even aware of Standards – because when the things and processes around us work, we have the luxury of not thinking about why they work.

A good example is wifi. Let’s be honest – wifi is almost like oxygen these days. More and more, we have all come to expect free wifi with our grande vanilla latte at the café. Have you ever considered why your wifi works the same, whether you’re in Brussels or Beijing? It’s because IEEE – pronounced “Eye-triple-E,” – created a Standard for wifi. Experts from around the world put all of their collective wisdom together, and under the auspices of IEEE – a professional association of electrical engineers – they agreed on the best way to make it work and created the wifi Standard IEEE 802.11 that the global marketplaces uses today.

wifi image

This Standard is voluntary. This part is hugely important. The techies came together, came up with their best answer, but it was still up to the marketplace to determine the best solution for the real world. The Standard had to rely on its technical merit to deliver what users wanted.

This is why the approach to Standards development – and allowing experts from around the world direct involvement – is so critical. Thinking back on this example, we have a common Standard for wifi, but what about the plugs we use to charge all of our devices? World travelers – don’t we all know the pain of carrying a myriad of adapters and plugs that can take up more room than the actual device itself? And haven’t we all found ourselves stuck somewhere without the right plug, having to pay a fortune for an adapter at some airport kiosk? Why did this happen?

Plugs were developed in an era where the separation of our continents kept us from communicating on their development, and the people coming up with the solutions only represented their immediate geographical area. Case in point: take a look at the radical difference between the UK-standard plug and the European-standard:

Also, the relative rarity of global travel, and the lack of reliance on electronic devices, meant there was no need to constantly charge up around the world. But today, the needs of the globalized world require us to ensure interoperability, and be able to move faster than ever with developing new products and services. Standards help us lay this foundation by distilling the collective wisdom of the technical experts, and writing that ‘playbook’.

Other historical examples of problems with standards:

That’s why it’s so important in Standards development for there to be a seat at the table for all interested parties, regardless of where they are from or who they may represent. This is a fundamental principle of the U.S. approach to Standards: keep the science in and the politics out.

This is a bottom-up, public-private multi-path approach. The government doesn’t dictate that a Standard should be developed. The private sector is free to engage in Standards development as they see fit for purpose.

And do they ever! There are over 400 various Standards Developers domiciled in the U.S., which makes the system very diverse and robust, and participation touches every corner of the globe. In fact, although I use the term “U.S. approach” here, when you look at the actual people participating in the working groups and technical committees, they are truly international with representatives from all over the world. The U.S. approach also follows the Code of Good Practice as set out by the World Trade Organization, which includes openness, transparency, impartiality, and consensus. Standards developed according to these principles can be considered international irrespective of what body developed them.

So with Standards activity led by the private sector – where most of the technical expertise is found – the role of government in this approach is to support, define, and lead as needed.

An example of this is connected vehicles. This is the kind of technology that will help us to get where we need to go faster, with higher levels of safety and fuel efficiency. But to do that, we need to have common protocols so the vehicles will seamlessly connect and keep the costs of implementing these technologies affordable for use in the real world.

To do this, the U.S. Department of Transportation is working with DG Connect on a Harmonization Action Plan with the EU. This plan provides greater detail on executing key elements of the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) Standards Program to ensure cooperation in development. In other words, helping ensure the systems just plain work, so you don’t have to think about it. Pretty cool, huh?

Are you still with me? Trust me, once you starting noticing Standards – which are truly all around us – you can’t stop! Want more? Take a look at my Prezi on the subject – with a really fun video about the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) here.

Marianne Drain

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