What Engineers Can Learn from Satchmo, Dizzy, and Miles

by Michael Mullaney on January 6, 2012

Few pleasures in life rival the joy of listening to good music, and few albums get as much airtime in my stereo as Bags’ Groove or Kind of Blue. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to learn of an uncanny connection between one of my favorite pastimes and my professional quest to share Rensselaer engineering research with the world.

Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor David Mendonça is interested in how and why we choose to do the things we do. His expertise lies in investigating the cognitive processes that underlie human decision making. More specifically, he studies decision making in non-routine, high-stress, time-pressured situations. By connecting the dots, you can see how this pursuit led him to studying the cleanup effort at Ground Zero after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He’s also interested in how first responders make decisions in emergency and disaster situations.

So how does jazz fit into the equation? Like all catastrophic disasters, Sept. 11 was truly unique. There was no playbook for the first responders to follow. No instruction manual to guide the site cleanup. So those brave souls did what they had to do: they made it up as they went along. They improvised.

There’s the connection. Professor Mendonça asked himself, “Who else improvises?” and he landed at jazz. This prompted him to launch a fascinating study to better understand how jazz musicians improvise, and leverage that understanding to help inform decision making in disaster response and cleanup situations.

David recently spoke to IEEE Spectrum Radio for a piece about engineering research related to disasters. The piece, titled “Responding to Disasters from Prediction to Recovery,” was recorded in partnership with the National Science Foundation and has been airing on National Public Radio stations across the country. You can listen to the entire piece here. Click ahead to the 40-minute mark to listen to the 10-minute segment on Mendonça. Below are a few tidbits of what he had to say.

On decision making by Sept. 11 first responders:

Lots of coordination had to happen on the ground, as opposed to in the back office, to keep that work going. So the ideas, like any good ideas, look very obvious in retrospect. But with any kind of high-stakes decision making like this, it’s important to consider the impact of time pressure and uncertainty on the ability of people to reason. There are all kinds of conflicting demands, fog of war, all that kind of stuff, where it’s not really clear what should be done.

On improvisation:

In the performing arts—music, theater, dance—it’s recognized as a skill to be practiced and honed and perfected. And there are many ways of instruction for building skills in those domains.

One of the things that you learn early as an improvising performer is how to take a routine or a phrase that you know and bend it, stretch it, so that it becomes something different but similar to what you learned. In that way, over time, with practice, you explore what’s possible. I think it’s worthwhile to look at training practices within the arts and say, “how can we adapt those for a different context, in this case emergency response?”

On jazz and emergency response improvisation:

At the level of notes, you have to have those building blocks in order. If you’re not prepared to take those building blocks and rearrange them, almost underneath awareness, then you can’t improvise. It’s the same in an emergency situation, where if you don’t have the fundamentals down, then improvising or attempting to improvise by taking advantage of those fundamentals is not going to work. Then you’re creating too much to think about.

On his research:

The work I’m doing now is in the area of trying to take some initial computer-executable models of improvisation and formalize them, so that they can be embedded in computers and used in this kind of training. So there’s an engineering payoff.

One way to look at disaster response is as an opportunity for learning and for renewal. It’s reasonable to ask how much to organizations learn from what happens in a disaster. So the improvisations that happen today are the standard operating procedures of tomorrow.

Read more about Mendonça here and here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Prof. Tom Willemain 01.10.12 at 2:25 am

I’m starting to think about how novices become expert at data analysis, and some of David’s comments sound like points of departure for me. We’re proud to have David in our department.

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