Engineering X outlines strategy to lead on safety in complex systems

Article by Adam Duckett

Call for changes to engineering education and professional development

Often people find themselves in a complex system-of-systems

IN an increasingly complex and interconnected world, the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) wants to cement the engineering profession as a recognised leader on safety in complex systems, which can support other professions and help shape the global agenda.

Engineering X, a partnership between RAEng and Lloyd’s Register that brings together experts to help address the greatest challenges of our time, has published a strategy and sponsored a series of case studies to better understand complex systems and how to manage them. It has called for changes to engineering education and professional development, and the development of new tools and a shared language to help disciplines better manage safety.

“Complex systems are many and varied, growing in number and impacting our lives daily, often in ways we don’t realise,” said Roger Kemp, who leads the Engineering X Safer Complex Systems advisory group.

“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.”

Kemp pointed to Storm Desmond which struck the UK in 2015. The resulting loss of power knocked out phone networks and ATM machines, and left petrol pumps inoperable.

Dame Judith Hackitt, Chair of Engineering X Safer Complex Systems, said: “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?”

Chairing a virtual briefing on the programme, Dame Judith said it is not exclusively about systems engineering. “This is about complex systems that involve many different disciplines. Not all of those disciplines are technical. Some of them are human systems, they are social systems, they can be regulatory systems, and many more.”

Looking back, looking ahead

The programme’s origins lie in a report commissioned in 2018 by Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF) on global safety challenges that highlighted the risks of complex systems failing. RAEng and LRF founded the Engineering X Safer Complex Systems programme in 2019. What followed were workshops and a study by the University of York that led to recommendations on how to support society to better manage complexity and an initial framework (pictured below) to help those in different sectors and disciplines analyse systemic failure and manage complexity safely.

Recommendations from the programme have included that the Engineering Council and professional engineering institutions (PEIs) consider how competencies for chartered status take account of cross-disciplinary working, systems thinking and engineering ethics. There’s also the need for outcomes-based regulation and research into how rare, high-consequence events impose risks on engineered structures.

Having gathered evidence and built a core community, the programme is now moving into a “build phase” that will run to 2023. It has identified four key areas to address: education, governance, advocacy, and building a diverse community.

This article is adapted from an earlier online version.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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