Program Design and Pacific Rim

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By: Matthew L. Howell, Ph.D., associate professor, EKU Department of Government

I’m a movie buff and a policy analyst, so of course I see policy in every movie I watch, including Pacific Rim, one of this summer’s blockbusters. Now, I know what you’re thinking –isn’t this the movie where giant robots fight giant monsters at suicidally close range? To which I respond, yes –and the robots are called Jaegers and the monsters are called Kaiju, because for some reason German and Japanese are traditionally linked in the genre. More important for my purpose, the movie is a great example of how to design a government program –or maybe how not to design a program.

In the movie, the Kaiju attack the world and conventional militaries are not able repel them without nuclear weapons. After nuking Los Angeles and San Diego, the world decides they need a new solution: the Jaegers. At first, the Jaegers are wildly successful at laying smack in downwards directions (excepting those times it is laid upwards or sideways) upon the Kaiju. The pilots become heroes, and they save many cities. Then, the Kaiju adapt, killing all but the last dozen Rangers. The world responds by creating an entirely new solution: the Kaiju Wall.

Well, it doesn’t work. The Kaiju breach the wall in under an hour and have to be stopped by one of the mothballed Jaegers –Striker Eureka. After that spectacular program rollout, it’s back to the old system, but with a twist. The remaining Jaegers are upgraded, the science team learns more about the Kaiju, and they redevelop their old war plans to successfully attack the rift where the Kaiju come from.

So what are the lessons for program design?

  1. Always monitor the program. Just because the rollout is successful, doesn’t meant that the situation won’t change. If the world governments had paid attention to the program, they would have realized the Kaiju were getting stronger, and been able to prepare. Instead, they were blindsided when the Kaiju took out the first Jaeger –Gipsy Danger, which leads to lesson 2.
  2. Monitor outcomes, not output. The government focused on the output –dead Kaiju –rather than the outcomes, which included not just the dead Kaiju but also the collateral damage and the wear and tear on the Jaegers. The program managers should have figured out that the Kaiju were getting stronger, but all they cared about was that the Kaiju were dead.
  3. Anything worth doing is worth doing small, first. The successful Jaeger program started with one, single-pilot robot. These things were death-traps, and the old pilots are all dying from radiation poisoning. However, they iterated and improved the technology until they could routinely succeed in their missions. If they had done this with the Kaiju Wall, they would have known about its failures early enough to fix it before they built the thing, and maybe even early enough to know not to mothball the Jaegers.
  4. Don’t try to replace a working program with a brand new program at the first sign of difficulty. The Jaeger program was tested and successful, the Kaiju Wall was neither. This is not to say never switch programs, but building the wall and mothballing the Jaegers before testing was a bad idea, and Sidney almost suffered for it.
  5. Finally, it is important to get your program theory and problem definition right. Early versions of the Jaeger program focused on killing Kaiju, and were unable to keep up with the decaying situation. The Kaiju Wall focused on keeping Kaiju in the Pacific, and failed immediately. The first attacks on the rift focused on destroying the rift itself, and always failed. While these early programs bought the world time, it was only when they figured out that the rift was being projected from the other side and figured out how to deliver an attack to the projector that they were able to design a program that saved the day.

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