Research Theme: Design Practice
The IdEAS project is focussed on developing design guidance that is flexibly applicable across a range of emerging technologies. The project focusses on those design principles that can be observed to affect the development and function of many different kinds of system, including technical systems, biological systems and organisational systems. These design principles might include modifying system attributes such as modularity and redundancy, so as to affect a system's behaviour, for example, in terms of robustness or scalability. The project is conceptual and qualitative in nature, and involves extensive interactions with scientists, technologists, engineers and policy makers.
Emerging technologies are science-based innovations with the potential to create, transform or obsolete entire industries. Examples range from ‘small-tech’ materials constructed at the atomic level through to ‘large-tech’ infrastructures enabled by the internet and other complex systems. Irrespective of their physical scale, emerging technologies have the potential to drive and support sustained economic growth. For some of these technologies, the projected markets for the middle of the 2020s are enormous: hundreds of billions of US dollars each for nanomaterials, smart grids, industrial biotechnology and plastic electronics. In these areas and others, the UK is in a strong position to lead technology development and commercial exploitation. However, realising these opportunities critically depends on the capacity to translate scientific advances and technological developments into product ideas that are suitable for manufacture, distribution and use.
Whilst emerging technologies can be entirely new, they most often result from new combinations of existing technologies, or are analogous to existing systems in some important way. The ability to identify and integrate knowledge, skills and processes from these other systems determines the rate at which the commercial and societal value of emerging technologies is realised. This entails design knowledge and design processes that are flexible and deployable across a broad range of technology types. However, because emerging technologies are potentially so disruptive, they pose a problem to traditional design methods. In particular, they present a three-part challenge of uncertainty, complexity and rapidity: uncertainty because there is no reliable foresight into what kind of technologies should be designed for; complexity because there is increasing interdependence between, and integration of, different types of systems; and rapidity because the rate at which new technologies are being introduced far outstrips the evolution of those previous technologies for which typical engineering design methods were initially developed.
Because designing for emerging technologies requires methods that can respond to uncertain, complex and rapid developments, there is a need for solution principles that are generally and readily applicable. Innovation could then be promoted if designers were able to review, combine and contrast these principles and apply them to specific technologies. This prompts the question: what design principles can best influence the development of engineering design methodologies for emerging technologies? The IdEAS project will answer this question, by gaining an understanding of the underpinning systems that emerging technologies are made up of or built into. Multiple system types will be investigated, along with the attributes of those systems and the system behaviours that those attributes promote. Comparative analysis of industrial case studies will show how decisions are made about the trade-off of one principle against another, and will permit the development of guidance that is concrete and actionable. By doing so, the project will provide engineers with the cross-domain knowledge of systems that they require to design for newly emerging technologies and for technologies that have not yet been imagined.
- Develop a framework that usefully maps system types, system attributes and system behaviours.
- Present comparative case studies revealing the analogies, interactions and conflicts between design practices that address different systems.
- Develop, package and communicate cross-domain design principles so that their influence is maximised in the design of emerging technologies.
The project will address the overall research question: What design principles can best influence the development of engineering design methodologies for emerging technologies? This can be broken down into three sub-questions (RQ1, RQ2 and RQ3), each addressed by a specific work package (WP1, WP2 and WP3).
RQ1: What systems framework is most useful for identifying design opportunities for emerging technologies (see the 'Details' section for a discussion of system types, attributes and behaviours)? WP1: The first work package will develop a framework for identifying and prioritising the design opportunities for emerging technologies. Existing knowledge will be consolidated and integrated by conducting an extensive review of the relevant literatures and through interviews with specialists in design, technology, science and innovation. The focus will be on understanding the most relevant dimensions along which systems vary, the categories that make up those dimensions and the relationships between them. Certain cross-domain perspectives on systems already exist, where design is a central concern. For example, recent work has developed design ideas for low power consumption that are applicable to biological and electronic systems and principles for the design of the brain that are applicable to microchips and other information networks. WP1 will position such contributions within a comprehensive representation of the ‘systems space’, identifying gaps in existing knowledge and areas for future work.
RQ2: What can we learn for engineering design methodology by studying the analogies, interactions and conflicts between design practices that address different systems? WP2: The second work package will study different areas of design practice to reveal opportunities for problem resolution and innovation in design for emerging technologies. The framework developed in WP1 will be used to prioritise which technologies are targeted for empirical enquiry. Fieldwork will then be conducted in academic and commercial settings to understand the design challenges that specific emerging technologies pose, and the system behaviours and system attributes that are required. The focus will be on understanding how design trade-offs are made when competing requirements must be resolved. A mixed-methods case study approach will be employed, drawing on company and laboratory documents, interviews with scientists, technologists and designers, and through studying the various artefacts that represent and constitute the technologies in question. Individual cases will be recorded, coded and analysed to understand the analogies, interactions and conflicts between design practices that attend to different types of system.
RQ3: How might an interdisciplinary approach to systems best be represented and communicated so that its influence is maximised in the design of emerging technologies? WP3: The third work package will develop design guidance that can be flexibly and readily applied to a broad range of emerging technologies. WP3 will develop an understanding of how to convert the findings from WP1 and WP2 into communicable and actionable design principles. Collaborative interactions with scientists, technologists and engineers will investigate how these principles are best applied to specific cases. Examples of how the principles are applied and the trade-offs involved will be drawn from the preceding work packages.
Throughout the three work packages, the IdEAS project will engage with industry, with policy makers and with media agents to ensure that the research is maximally relevant and best presented for impact.
Emerging technologies are made up of, are developed through, and must succeed in a variety of systems. To structure the research, the IdEAS project will consider the intersection of three independent dimensions along which systems vary.
System Types: The first dimension can be divided into categories of system types that technologies are composed of, integrated with or serve. Examples of such system types include: mechanical systems (e.g. mechanisms, machines, structures); informational systems (e.g. software, electronics, communication); biological systems (e.g. organs, organisms, ecologies); social systems (e.g. rules, organisations, institutions). These different system types can be combined in various ways to form hybrid-systems. For example, recent developments in social-networking technologies (for leisure and commerce) combine the informational with the social; many medical advances combine the mechanical with the biological. Providing engineers with a systematic understanding of what distinguishes different system types and how they are related will encourage a better knowledge base from which to imagine and implement the hybrid technological systems of the future.
System Attributes: The second dimension can be divided into the categories of system attributes that determine the successful operation (and interoperation) of systems (with dysfunction and malfunction being considered for contrast). Examples of such system attributes include: modularity (e.g. segregation, integration, coupling); redundancy (e.g. active, passive, series and parallel architectures); complexity (e.g. enumeration, interconnection, feedback, emergence). These different system attributes are not simply the preserve of any one system type (or technology type), but are instead common across many system types, and combinations thereof. This is well understood in the oft-made comparisons between biological and technical systems, and this connection has aroused interest in the biological sciences. For example, it has recently been suggested that ideas from engineering have relevance not just to the structure and function of organisms, but also to the structure and function of the cells from which those organisms are composed.
System Behaviours: The third dimension can be divided into the categories of system behaviours that characterise their functioning (with dysfunction and malfunction being considered for contrast). Examples of such system behaviours include: effectiveness (e.g. size of effect, rate of effect, duration of effect); efficiency (e.g. of energy, of materials, of processes); dependability (e.g. robustness against failure, resilience with failure); adaptability (e.g. to internal change, to external change); scalability (e.g. increasing number, size, rate). These different system behaviours are influenced by various system attributes, and they determine the success of various system types. This success can be conceptualised as the potential for the system to survive and/or reproduce in the face of environmental pressures. That is the case whether we are considering an animal exposed to ecological pressures (natural selection), a product exposed to market forces (consumer selection) or ideas exposed to creative decisions (designer selection). We do not presently understand the role that different system attributes (or combinations of them) play in contributing to beneficial system behaviours for different system types.
Exploring the intersection of system types, system attributes and system behaviours forms a three-dimensional framework that will be used to structure the research project. Examples of existing systems frameworks that can be used as a foundation are listed below. Combining these with an analysis of multiple systems types will be an early objective of the project.
Fricke, E., & Schulz, A. P. (2005). Design for changeability (DfC): Principles to enable changes in systems throughout their entire lifecycle. Systems Engineering, 8(4), 342–359.
Hastings, D., & McManus, H. (2004). A framework for understanding uncertainty and its mitigation and exploitation in complex systems. Presented at the Engineering Systems Symposium, MIT, Cambridge, MA.
Ryan, E. T., Jacques, D. R., & Colombi, J. M. (2012). An ontological framework for clarifying flexibility-related terminology via literature survey. Systems Engineering, 16(1), 99–110.
The IdEAS project is funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as an Early Career Fellowship awarded to Dr Nathan Crilly. The grant reference number is EP/K008196/1.