Nathan Crilly: Case study

at Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge

University Senior Lecturer, Engineering Design Centre, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

"At the CSaP Policy Workshop on Resilient Systems it was especially interesting to see participants recognise that they could benefit from each other’s approaches to resilience"

My group is conducting research into the design of systems, whether those systems are technical, social or socio-technical. This work relates to all sorts of concepts: for example the adaptability, flexibility and robustness of a system. Resilience is used as an umbrella term for these concepts but it is often unclear quite what is meant when someone describes a system as requiring, possessing or lacking resilience. The purpose of the workshop was to explore resilience concepts with respect to different types of system and from the perspective of different domains: industry, academia, policy making. In doing so, we learnt how individuals coming from these different backgrounds understand resilience and how they communicate about it. What was especially interesting was to see different participants, concerned with seemingly very different systems recognise that they could benefit from each others’ approaches to defining, measuring or improving system resilience.

With the support of other group members, my graduate student, Eloise Taysom, analysed data from the workshop with respect to existing academic literature. This allowed us to create a synthesis of what was discussed at the workshop and what we learned. As a result we have been able to think about and represent resilience in a domain-neutral way. This is useful because although the concept is widely applicable, people often talk about it in a highly specific manner, depending on their background or the systems they are considering.

Following this work, our findings have been presented in a number of forums. Through Rob Doubleday, I was invited to the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) roundtable discussion on engineering methods in policy, where I talked about the findings of the Policy Workshop. We also presented the outcomes of the research at the Systemic Design Conference in Banff (Canada), and the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta. We found that audiences with wide ranging academic backgrounds have been very receptive to the work, providing a useful platform to share perspectives on resilience.

A lot of the value of the workshop was having people describe the resilience of their system in terms that other people (who work with other types of system or other levels in the same system) could understand. What became clear is that when resilience claims are made, the boundaries that define the system are often left implicit, as is the assumed purpose that the system serves. Based on this, our next project will involve interviews with different stakeholders of the same system to consider resilience in different parts of the system and at different levels of abstraction. We will be conducting this work with respect to aspects of the system that are mostly technical and aspects that are mostly social. That way, we can develop a good understanding of how resilience can be understood and communicated in socio-technical systems.

We are currently funding a Policy Fellowship for Dr Andrea Siodmok from the Cabinet Office. The next stage in our work will be partially guided by Andrea’s interests and we plan to hold a second, follow-up workshop in the near future.