Launch of our flyer on safely managing the emergent properties of complex systems

Clear governance and ownership for managing complexity are important, particularly when systems are developed by multiorganizational teams, using complex contracting structures.

The reputational, financial, and operational implications of misunderstanding emergent properties are significant.

For systems supplying critical services to society, the safety impacts cannot be understated.

As complexity continues to increase, greater policy guidance will be needed to support safe system development.

Objectives for engineering managers

Complex systems can have very long life cycles.

The operating conditions and governance will change over a system’s lifetime. Managers are temporary stewards of projects.

Pervasive long term sustainable thinking.

Managers will need to justify investment in long projects. The ability to understand risks, insurance and support requirements will be critical. Prepare for low probability catastrophic risks. Learn to work with uncertainty. Early course correction may be the best action.

Managers have a responsibility to present reality.

Nurture a culture of communication. Create opportunity for structured and open dialogue where all team members present reality and have time to explore emergence. Diverse thinking is needed on corporate responsibilities, risk based judgements, regulatory compliance, and accountability. Over optimism comes with high risk.

Exploit technology for deeper management insights.

Business, financial, and organisational tools should support the complex systems that they manage. Technology options for enhancing governance should be exploited whilst retaining the accountability of human decision-making.

Objectives for engineers

Strive to understand complexity and emergent properties.

Early understanding of system-of-systems context, boundaries, interfaces, and interactions is critical across the full life cycle.

Judge when understanding can turn into action.

More analysis could always be done before making decisions, but resources are rarely available. Effort should be devoted to deciding when understanding is sufficient to act.

Integrate management and engineering.

Management and engineering should fully support each other’s endeavours to build a coherent approach to developing and supporting complex systems throughout their life cycles.