Soft Engineering: Anticipating an increasingly messy landscape for engineering practice

Mike Yearworth, Leroy White

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper

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Developments in engineering education have addressed the question of how engineers deal with messy problems. The purpose is to get students used to the idea that engineers are increasingly involved in projects where the notion of a unique or optimal solution is misguided. The intention is to develop skills in recognising problem contexts that i) involve many interested parties with different perspectives (worldviews), ii) lack clear or unique definition, iii) exhibit difficulty in agreeing objectives and where success requires creating agreement amongst parties involved, and iv) have many uncertainties. A more urgent form of these ideas – super wicked problems – add anthropomorphic cause, lack of time and irrational discounting of future events as critical elements of the characterisation. Having recognised these contexts as a signal that different techniques (from business as usual) are required, this also begs the question of what they might be. Our current approach draws heavily from systemic Problem Structuring Methods (PSMs) but is this appropriate? The socially constructed formulation of messy problems suggests further exploration of the tension between the prevalent naïve positivist and social constructivist views. We should heed warnings that the uncritical use of tools and techniques of the naïve positivist viewpoint evidences an endemic atheoretical pragmatism, which leads us to a critique of the role of engineering practice as a form of instrumental rationality. On the other hand, the outright rejection of the social constructivist viewpoint is not helpful. Is there then some middle ground we can find, which presents a more sophisticated position than this apparently manufactured divide? And is there some other strand of theory that might be useful? The intention here is to stimulate debate that will contribute to the development of new approaches for engineers as they engage in the practice of anticipating an increasingly messy future.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 7 Nov 2015
EventFirst International Conference on Anticipation - Trento, Italy
Duration: 5 Nov 20157 Nov 2015


ConferenceFirst International Conference on Anticipation

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