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Civil Engineer blog

Systems thinking for infrastructure professionals

28 March 2017
Systems thinking provides a framework for understanding complex issues and structuring our problems to deliver substantially better results.
Systems thinking for  infrastructure professionals

Civil engineering projects involve multiple stakeholders with differing motivations, purposes, aims, objectives and constraints – some of which inevitably conflict. This makes civil engineering projects inherently demanding. There has long been a recognition by everyone involved that UK industry needs to improve.

Traditional 'predict and provide' linear methods - brief, design, construct and deliver – work when uncertainties are low. However, there is often uncertainty due to financial, technological, political and other pressures, and consequent surprises. Focusing on the lowest possible cost as an indicator of value has not provided solutions to these problems in the past. We need to rethink how we run modern infrastructure projects and one way of doing that is 'systems thinking'.

What is systems thinking?

In overview systems thinking is joined-up thinking - getting the right information (what) to the right people (who) at the right time (when) for the right purpose (why) in the right form (where) and in the right way (how).

While we may do this intuitively for simple problems, when they are complex we need a framework that supports our learning together.

The first point in trying to achieve this is to understand that success is all about collaboration. Consequently the first question is to find a clear and shared version of what success looks like. All stakeholders need to understand and agree the purpose at every stage even if the definition of success changes over time. In order to clarify interdependencies between differing purposes it is imperative to address the questions 'why' before 'how' and to find ways to collaborate to add value for all.

Second, stakeholders should agree to admit that sometimes they do not know - there may be unforeseen and unrecognised sources of uncertainty. This can be the most difficult part of the conversation.

The third aspect of systems thinking is to understand project scope and remit – the system boundaries. Systems thinkers do this by thinking through the necessary and sufficient conditions for the success of any process, understanding processes as 'holons' that are both complete in themselves and the basis of higher level activity. This gives a new understanding of what we mean by 'practical rigour'.

How does systems thinking help?

Systems thinking is useful for construction projects because it enables the interests of all stakeholders to be included explicitly. This is vital in an increasingly demanding context with challenging requirements from multiple stakeholders.

Systems thinkers seek to understand the different needs and values of each stakeholder and then create a new value network that synthesises different needs and values in ways acceptable to all involved.

Systems thinkers can do this because they look for interdependencies between processes – many involving different stakeholders. This enables professionals to notice ways in which existing problems can be solved, or new combinations of needs or values be created.

In addition, because processes exist at all scales and stages of a project a systems thinking approach enables more creative problem solving at all stages of a project, rather than relying heavily on early stage design briefs to resolve major challenges.

Systems thinking helps engineers by:

  • providing a framework for understanding and managing uncertainty and complexity
  • enabling multiple stakeholders to collaborate and add value
  • structuring problems to facilitate joined-up thinking
  • understanding better interactions between hard and soft systems
  • providing practical rigour in identifying and agreeing what process holons are necessary and sufficient for success

Find out more in Doing It Differently

The second edition of Doing it Differently defines 5 axioms, 17 corollaries and 7 principles for systems thinkers to use. The axioms are important presuppositions for systems thinking:

  • having an impelling purpose
  • using appropriate layers
  • seeing complex interdependencies
  • realising the ubiquity of change
  • the importance of evolutionary learning

The book is for all those concerned with the security and integrity of the infrastructure of the locality, city, country and world we live in. Each chapter has a 'targeting success' section so that you can check your practical progress. There are also appendices on how BIM and good quality contracts can help embed systems thinking in projects.

Systems thinking is a powerful framework for delivering modern infrastructure projects, explained in Doing it Differently published by ICE Publishing.