Richardson: Make systems thinking education mandatory

Article by Adam Duckett

ICHEME President Stephen Richardson has recommended to a House of Lords select committee that systems thinking skills should be mandatory in engineering education for effective risk management.

The oil and gas expert and Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London was joined by nuclear expert Dame Sue Ion, who is an Honorary Fellow of IChemE and Honorary President at the National Skills Academy for Nuclear. They were invited to give evidence virtually, on 10 March, to the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, regarding the resilience and risks within these sectors, as well as the challenges in developing and implementing risk assessment processes.

Their key point was the vital need to embed a systems-thinking approach to new or existing system installations throughout their entire lifecycle – from design to decommission. Both emphasised these practices should be embedded from the start, in an engineer’s education and throughout their career via continuing professional development.

When asked to suggest a policy that the committee could recommend to the Government, Richardson proposed making systems thinking mandatory within engineering education and development.

“I’d require all graduate engineers – all professional engineers – to be trained in risks and systems thinking. I can’t see why we don’t.”

Dame Sue was in agreement with this approach and recommended ensuring systems thinking is applied at the highest levels of UK Government, particularly for those policymakers making decisions on the infrastructure required to establish robust energy systems for achieving net zero targets by 2050.

“Systems thinking could really help us to get to something that is workable and endurable in the post 2050-era; and safe in the post-2050 era,” she said.

Among many topics in the session, Richardson and Dame Sue discussed the operational risks posed by humans and technology; the use of emerging technologies to successfully manage risk; as well as the importance of educating the public on perceived and actual risk through evidence-based promotion – particularly for nuclear radiation risk. They shared risk management lessons learned from high profile incidents, such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown 10 years ago; the Piper Alpha oil and gas platform explosion in 1988, and the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

They also explained that the critical skills and expertise of professionally qualified engineers, as well as cross-sector experience-sharing to encourage diversity of thinking and good practice, are key to managing risk and investigating incidents in these sectors.

Following the session Richardson said: “I felt honoured to be asked to be a witness on such a critical topic. It was particularly valuable to give evidence alongside Dame Sue Ion as we were able to compare and contrast risks in nuclear and oil and gas. A risk-based safety culture is central to the role of chemical, biochemical and process engineers, which therefore makes our profession’s skills and expertise all the more important for aiding policymakers.

“In the session we stressed that to manage risk effectively it is vital to consider the big picture and create a systems perspective from the very start – which is a fundamental element contained in all IChemE-accredited undergraduate courses. This means that risk and systems become ingrained into our natural way of thinking. I also drew distinctions with other some engineering sectors which may benefit from adopting a similar systems approach at university level and, along with the vital, inescapable need for systems thinking, made this my main recommendation to the committee for future action.”

Other issues discussed during the session included: the risk that the UK will cease to have security of supply over its own nuclear fuel and face skilled job losses after fuel supply deals for Hinkley Point nuclear site have been contracted to France rather than from the Springfields nuclear fuel manufacturing plant in Lancashire; the development of digitalisation in industry and how the analysis of new data streams can provide fresh insight including for risk reduction; and that UK engineering could become world-leaders in systems thinking.

Watch the recording of the committee session online at Parliament Live TV.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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