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Engineering X funds case studies to help understand complex systems in an unpredictable world

  • Nineteen projects will help develop more agile approaches to the safety and management of complex systems
  • First roadmap published to help convene an international community to advance the development of safer complex systems

Nineteen case studies of vastly different complex systems are being funded by Engineering X to examine systemic successes and failures arising out of complexity and help explain how specific approaches to the design, management or governance of complex systems affect safety.

The case studies are drawn from around the world and from different sectors—from construction, transport and fire safety to energy supply and health and social care. Each one will examine the underlying principles of a success or failure story (past, present or potential) and will summarise this information as a set of generalised learnings from which the wider community can learn. They will help support much-needed collaboration and knowledge sharing among diverse sets of stakeholders who currently talk about complex systems in very different ways.

The case studies have been commissioned by the Safer Complex Systems mission within Engineering X, which has also published its first strategy outlining its approach to promoting better understanding of complex systems and how to manage them. Engineering X is an international collaboration, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, that brings together some of the world’s leading problem-solvers to address the great challenges of our age.

“Complex systems are many and varied, growing in number and impacting our lives daily, often in ways we don’t realise,” says Professor Roger Kemp MBE FREng, who leads the Engineering X Safer Complex Systems advisory group, explaining the background to the mission. “The world’s climate is an important example of a complex system in which natural phenomena are interlinked and changes in one can impact others via complex feedback loops, many of which are not well understood. Essential services such as health and social care, education, food and water supply, communications, finance, retail, transport and power supplies are also more interconnected than ever before. When complex systems don’t work as expected or fail altogether the impacts can be far-reaching.

“Some complex systems are engineered – such as a city metro system – there is a plan, the participants are known in advance, and there are protocols and regulations in place. There is little ambiguity over its geographical extent, assets, operations or responsibility for the safety of the network. Other complex systems can be ad hoc – with no central authority, players joining and leaving at will, and regulation covered by multiple jurisdictions.

“Often people find themselves in a complex system-of-systems that, until one system fails and there is a cascading effect on lots of other systems, no-one had previously thought of as being interconnected, and the development of appropriate oversight and governance is not keeping up with the pace of change.”

Professor Brian Collins CB FREng, who chaired the case study selection panel, said: “It is clear that when it comes to the challenges of living and working safely in an ever more complex and unpredictable world and the systems within it, we need to develop new tools and more agile ways of approaching education, training, policymaking, governance and regulation.

“The Engineering X Safer Complex Systems mission is itself proving a study in complex adaptive learning and all the signs are that the case studies and the teams developing them will make a significant contribution to understanding whether it is possible to find common principles and new models for the management of safer complex systems. The lack of common experience and language at the interface between engineered and non-engineered systems is one area that we believe may be worth exploring in more detail, but it is dangerous to make assumptions and we need the help of a wide community of experts who have relevant experience and fresh insight to offer.”

Dame Judith Hackitt DBE FREng, Chair of Engineering X Safer Complex Systems, said of the strategy document: “The increasing complexity and interconnectedness of the world we live in has made us all more vulnerable to systemic shocks like the current COVID-19 pandemic. We need to ask ourselves three questions: how can we manage complexity more effectively? How can we find ways to simplify and share knowledge and good practice? And how do we raise awareness and increase competency across engineering disciplines and beyond?

“The Engineering X Safer Complex Systems strategy document is based on our current understanding of this subject area and the priority needs outlined by the mission, but we are learning by doing and we must always be ready to adapt our plans as new learnings arise. As we engage with a wider global community and our understanding of the subject develops, we may need to revise or reprioritise this roadmap to meet the needs of our global complex systems community. We need others to join us on our journey to support society to better manage complexity.”

The case studies commissioned are:

  1. Social innovators as a human sensing network solving humanitarian challenges of the 21st century (Chile)
    Project lead: Matías René Rojas De Luca, Socialab, Chile
  2. Cyber–physical system shortfalls in the 2011 Brisbane flood (Australia)
    Project lead: Dr Giuliano Punzo, University of Sheffield, UK
  3. Complex systemic failures in the Edinburgh schools case (UK)
    Project lead: Dr Jonathan Gosling, Cardiff University, UK
  4. Improving resilience to major safety events in industry (USA, Japan, Australia, Hungary and UK)
    Project lead: Professor Richard Taylor, University of Bristol, UK
  5. Ferry disaster provides vital global safety lessons (UK and Belgium)
    Project lead: Professor Chengi Kuo, University of Strathclyde, UK
  6. Bexley train crash — a system failure (UK)
    Dr Chris Elliott MBE FREng, Pitchill Consulting, Switzerland
  7. Planned adaptive regulation as applied to the Dutch ‘Delta Programme’ (The Netherlands)
    Project lead: Dr Richard Judge, Bartlett Judge Associates, UK
  8. The Hatfield derailment – a problem of governance? (UK)
    Project lead: Professor Roger Kemp MBE FREng, Lancaster University, UK
  9. A systems approach to reducing train accident risk (UK)
    Project lead: Brian Tomlinson, Network Rail, UK
  10. A comparative study of fire risk emergence in informal settlements in Dhaka and Cape Town (South Africa, Bangladesh)
    Project lead: Danielle Antonellis, Kindling, USA
  11. Structural integrity management of energy infrastructure (UK)
    Project lead: Dr Yin Jin Janin, TWI, UK
  12. Vulnerability and evacuation strategies of rural communities threatened by wildfire (USA, Canada)
    Project lead: Professor Steve Gwynne, Movement Strategies, UK
  13. Australian climate extremes and building transport network resilience (Australia)
    Project lead: Dr Kirsten MacAskill, University of Cambridge, UK
  14. Understanding the dynamics of an emergent cycling transport system during the COVID-19 pandemic (Colombia)
    Project lead: Professor Andrés Medaglia Gonzalez, Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia
  15. Beyond the limits of knowledge — navigating uncertainty in complex systems (International)
    Project lead: Dr Richard Judge, Bartlett Judge Associates, UK
  16. Analysing humanitarian supply chain crashes, recovery and alternatives during COVID-19 (International)
    Project lead: Claire Travers, Field Ready, Sweden
  17. Systemic failures in nursing home care (Australia)
    Project lead: Professor Dr Joachim Sturmberg, University of Newcastle, Australia
  18. Delivering a seasonally agnostic railway (UK)
    Project lead: Dr Brian Haddock, Network Rail, UK
  19. Towards A Simpler and Safer Nuclear Sector (UK)
    Project lead: Professor Francis Livens, University of Manchester, UK

More about the case studies—which are due to be completed in late 2021—can be found here.

The case studies and strategy from the Engineering X Safer Complex Systems mission will be published to coincide with a Royal Academy of Engineering online technical briefing How can we tackle the shifting challenges of complex systems? by Professor Roger Kemp, Professor Emeritus at Lancaster University, and Danielle Antonellis, Founder and Executive Director at Kindling. Free to attend, the event will be chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

Also being made available are reports commissioned by the Engineering X Safer Complex System mission over the past two years which have informed the current shape of the mission. They include Safer Complex Systems: An Initial Frameworkreport from the University of York; the findings of the Exploring the safety of super-sized structures workshop run in collaboration with University College London and BRE (Building Research Establishment); and a summary of the Safer Complex Systems workshop 2020 convened by Professor Roger Kemp.

Engineers and non-engineers in academia, industry and government with an interest and expertise in safety and complex systems are invited to join the mission’s growing global community to better understand and operate complex systems in safe way. Please contact [email protected] Programme Manager for Safer Complex Systems.

Notes for Editors

  1. Engineering X is an international collaboration, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, that brings together some of the world’s leading problem-solvers to address the great challenges of our age. Our global network of expert engineers, academics and business leaders is working to share best practice, explore new technologies, educate and train the next generation of engineers, build capacity, improve safety and deliver impact.

    Engineering X Safer Complex Systems mission was launched in June 2019 to enhance the safety of complex infrastructure systems globally. Safer Complex Systems is governed through a board chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt DBE FREng, Chair of Make UK and former Chair of the Health and Safety Executive.

  2. The Royal Academy of Engineering is harnessing the power of engineering to build a sustainable society and an inclusive economy that works for everyone. In collaboration with our Fellows and partners, we’re growing talent and developing skills for the future, driving innovation and building global partnerships, and influencing policy and engaging the public. Together we’re working to tackle the greatest challenges of our age.
  3. Lloyd’s Register Foundation is an independent global charity with a unique structure and an important mission: engineering a safer world. We reduce risk and enhance the safety of the critical infrastructure that modern society relies upon in areas such as energy, transport, and food.

    Our vision is to be known worldwide as a leading supporter of engineering-related research, training and education that makes a real difference in improving the safety of the critical infrastructure on which modern society relies. In support of this, we promote scientific excellence and act as a catalyst working with others to achieve maximum impact. We meet our aims by awarding grants, by direct activity, and through the societal benefit activities of our trading group, which shares our mission. Through our grant making we aim to connect science, safety and society by supporting research of the highest quality and promoting skills and education.

Media enquiries to: Pippa Cox at the Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. +44 207 766 0745; email: [email protected]

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