Emerging tech regulation – the ‘Whack a rat’ model

I have lots to do, but this fabulous analogy on regulation of innovation by Jack Stilgoe has been amusing me in relation to some work we are planning on Responsible Innovation and new forms of governance. So I thought I would get my thoughts down in a blog to get rid of it and finish the things I should be doing – or is this what I should be doing!?

Technology regulation as Whack a Rat game

Jack says: “There’s a game that is played in UK summer fetes called ‘Whack-a-rat’. There is a 4-foot long pipe running up a piece of board. The player crouches down at the exit of the pipe with some sort of whacking device – rounders bat or similar. The stallholder, having taken the player’s 50p, puts a toy rat into the top of the pipe. The rat slides down and shoots out of the other end. The whacker has to react and splat the rat on the ground. If, as normally happens, the rat shoots past, the whacker gets no prize. In this stupid analogy, the regulator has the bat and has to react to innovations that spring from the pipe. Wouldn’t it be better if there was some form of communication from the person inserting the rat, some way of knowing what was coming out of the pipe and when? Even having a transparent pipe would help.”

Here are a few of the questions it raises for me:

1 The trajectory of the rat

Once the rat is in the pipe, the real issue is the speed and trajectory of its passage through the pipe – requiring calculation of it’s weight, the angle of the pipe, the materials the pipe and the rat are made of.

So for emerging technologies say, perhaps we can argue we similarly know what the rat is roughly like going into the pipe (eg research areas, technology platforms) but unlike the rat analogy, we don’t quite know what shape it is when it comes out.  So the decision on it’s trajectory through the pipe is made more complicated.

A transparent pipe therefore allows us to have a much better understanding of what the changes in shape, size, weight, density are when it comes out, and is very helpful in allowing us to correctly analyse the necessary trajectory.

 2 The correct use of the bat

The next bit is assessing the right moment to move the bat – how high to hold it, how fast to bring it down, with what force and when.  The transparent pipe will help with that, but we need skills in bat wielding as well as knowledge of the rat and its trajectory. Different rats may even require different batting techniques.

So for our emerging tech analogy, different types of regulation may be appropriate for different types of product or technology.  Transparency also helps here giving us a clearer view of when and how we need to react.

However, as we all know, the understanding of exactly what is required, the bat’s angle, trajectory and speed and how to deliver it effectively is another thing altogether. (Any tennis player or golfer will know that only too well!).

As ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’, which I am sure translates quite well to the Inner Game of Rat Whacking, tells us, even the most precise knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate to getting the bat and the ball in the harmonious synchronicity you would like!

As we also know regulation is not perfect, getting it right is not as easy in reality as it is in theory, human nature gets in the way!  However, there is something here about values, vision, having one’s head on the bigger picture which also makes for better regulation and rat whacking.  But I haven’t the time to delve into that!

But what about when you miss the rat altogether!?

Then what happens when you miss the rat and it scuttles away potentially giving diseases to everyone it comes into contact with?  Does the Rat Whacker then chase around the fete with the bat, flailing wildly, knocking over cake stalls and bowling over old ladies in the desperate attempt to whack the rat?!  Perhaps cause more mayhem and damage than the rat itself ever would?!

Or will the Whacker have anticipated this, and cordoned off a bit in front of the rat stall, where the rat can be quickly retrieved before any damage is done to the dignity of the whacker or the rest of the fete!

I am rather loving this analogy!




3 Responses to “Emerging tech regulation – the ‘Whack a rat’ model”

  1. Paul Woof says:

    The game of whack-a-rat, like nearly all skill based fairground games, relies upon the over confidence of the player. Over confidence is a common characteristic and is even apparent in activities for which careful planning has supposedly been undertaken such as budget setting or starting a business. Faced with the coconut shy of life, humans are nearly always too confident.

    There are ways to increase your chances of rat whacking. I once enjoyed using such a stall as a source of funds at a scout fair. Here are my tips and how they apply to risk monitoring.

    Firstly, when whacking the rat there is not enough time to raise and lower the bat. The bat must be held up so that it only needs to drop onto the rat. This reduces the time taken to skrike a blow considerably.

    So institutions for risk control and methods to control risk should be established in advance so they are easily and quickly triggered.

    The bat should not be held too high and the blow needs to be fast but not necessarily powerful.

    So there is no need for overkill just sufficient effort to succeed.

    As time passed my skill increased and the stall holders considered banning me but instead a greater effort was made to disguise the timing of the release and to vary the speed of the rat.

    So, if you are too successful the insiders will try to change the game.

  2. Hilary says:

    Brilliant, thanks Paul!

  3. Hilary says:

    I am doing some scenarios on emerging tech governance and think this is actually a great way of illustrating an approach. Am trying to now tweak the analogy to illustrate a US and EU based approach to nano! I think I may have bitten off more than I can chew! Any ideas most welcome!

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