To Engineer - Strategies for solving complex
Authored by IESIS Past President Iain MacLeod
The paper discusses fundamental issues in problem solving and
describes methods used by professional engineers.
An engineered approach should be adopted by all who need to solve
complex problems. All educational curricula should have a component of
learning to solve such problems.
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Background to the paper
Iain MacLeod November 2017
To Engineer is a summary of my findings in a
search for answers to the question 'How is it that professional
engineers are able to consistently achieve successful outcomes in
situations of complex uncertainty?'
In the 1980s, in the Department of Civil Engineering at the
University of Strathclyde, we carried out research work on computer
aided design using artificial intelligence methods. We realised that
to have any success in this, we had to develop an understanding of the
processes used for engineering design. We did develop techniques that
are now used in software to assist design but an important outcome was
that the research started me on a study of engineering processes.
In the 1990s, also at
Strathclyde, I ran undergraduate civil engineering design project
classes with the objective that the students would use best practice
engineering methodology. I
therefore had to identify such best practice. This was a time at which
the UK construction industry was going through an interesting phase.
New ways of operating to keep down costs and improve quality were
being developed. I sought
to communicate these ideas to the students.
In my early career as a
researcher in structural engineering I worked on the development of
computer based methods for structural analysis, i.e. the use of
mathematical models for predicting the behaviour of structures.
This was mainly focused on determinate processes (solutions
exist that precisely satisfy the requirements
exist) but I came to realise that structural analysis is fundamentally
solutions do not exist). It
is only after the choice of model and the method of solution have been
made, that the problems became determinate. This led me to teach
structural analysis more as an exercise in modelling rather than as
being mainly concerned with doing calculations - and to the
development of a reflective approach for such activity.
In 2007 we formed the
IESIS Energy Strategy Group that promotes the principle that government decisions for the
Electricity System should be based on sound engineering methodology.. The process of refining our
arguments for this has been instructive.
Also in recent years, I have come to realise that
how you think is as important as what you know and have sought to
identify the thought processes that underpin professional engineering