To Engineer - Strategies for solving complex problems

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 non-determinate  (precise 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 competence.