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Anticipatory Engineering: more than business as usual?

What might the explicit acknowledgement of anticipation contribute to existing engineering practice and theory? Whenever an engineer creates a model of a system the purpose is almost certainly to anticipate scenarios of the form “will the system perform as designed in some future imagined situation?” A good example might be designing a city’s flood defences against some estimated future state of sea level. Engineering generally seems to be very good at this type of anticipation across all its separate concerns; civil, mechanical, aero, ICT etc. The reach of Engineering is more often than not bounded by the limits placed by economic value; e.g. the height and extent of flood defences actually built will likely be a trade-off between performance and available budget. However, this narrow view of value is also one of the problems facing engineering. What is actually valued by a wide group of stakeholders is also likely to be contested. The messier the problem, the more diverse and contested will be the values. We suggest that engineering currently either (i) ignores this diversity of values and their contested nature, or (ii) handles the situation in an ad hoc informal non-systematic way. Both approaches are at the cost of being trapped in a functional role of instrumental rationality. The explicit study of what other disciplines understand by anticipation and engaging in dialogue over these meanings potentially offers engineering one way out of this bind.

We welcome topics exploring how anticipation could illuminate problems in engineering, including but not limited to

  • Engineering and social theory

o It has been suggested that studying the works of Habermas, and other social theorists, should be part of the engineering curriculum, especially systems engineering. Is this desirable and/or feasible?

  • The role of modelling

o Do we need more complex models in engineering that include diverse and contested values, and that deal with specifying uncertainty (e.g. probabilistic models)?

o How can engineering leverage modelling and explicitness (e.g. general models of known limits – time, space, certainty; models of behaviour trajectories; models of change; models of potential side effects – undesired, desired – of introducing a system to an environment; models of how a system and its environment change each other)?

  • The treatment of time

o The way in which time is modeled in engineering (linear, objective) is different from the human experience of time. Is the failure to recognize and appreciate this difference a critical lack in engineering practice?

o Engineering makes much use of hindsight and the fact that most complex problems engineers deal with are not entirely new and not entirely unsolved previously. How should engineering capture knowledge, patterns, past experience that will likely recur?

o What is the difference for engineering between near-term (lifetime of engineering programme artefacts) versus long-term (e.g. LongNow timescales) anticipation?

  • Experimentation and prototyping

o How can engineering leverage exploration, experimentation, prototyping and simulation in the new artificial or natural laboratories for instrumenting and capturing data?

  • Engaging in dialogue

o What avenues exist for improving the dialogue between engineering and in particular the social sciences? What new methods of collaboration can we devise and implement?


  • Mike Yearworth (Faculty of Engineering, University of Bristol, UK)
  • Janet Willis Singer (International Society for the Systems Sciences, Santa Cruz, USA)
  • Rick Adcock (Cranfield Defence and Security, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham, UK)
  • Michael Singer (International Society for the Systems Sciences, Santa Cruz, USA)
  • Duane Hybertson (The MITRE Corp, Washington DC, USA)

Relevant information

  • Session's speakers should register and pay the conference fee:
    • Early registration (before 1 September 2015): € 150
    • Late registration (from 1 September 2015): € 200
  • To submit please send a two-pages abstract to Mike Yearworth before June 15, 2015: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Further information on the conference is available from www.projectanticipation.org/

Important dates

  • Abstract submission: 15 June 2015
  • Final program: 30 June 2015
  • Early registration: Before 1 September 2015
  • Deadline registration: 20 October 2015



Project Anticipation

Department of Sociology and Social Research

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