Science in seeds

Throughout my career I’ve helped engineers to overcome challenges in their design processes – the need to simplify complex models, the need to assess things more quickly, the need to understand and enforce constraints, the need to visualise large and diverse sets of data so that they can make decisions.  

Then we come up with the idea that an engineer should be a gardener rather than a sculptor! When I first hear it I think surely an engineer is neither – engineering is not a craft – it’s about the application of science to solve problems!

But as I think about it I realise we are not doing away with science – we are simply changing the way it is applied in design. Rather than the engineer deciding how to apply science to a problem, we will try to capture it up front and let the process decide when and how to apply it.

So, the thought is this – maybe there are some simple rules which can control the growth and behaviour of engineering systems in a manner akin to nature.  If there are, then our challenges are these: to observe nature to identify these rules, to define how they could work in an engineering context, and to experiment to see what can be achieved if we do design this way.

To do this we have to discover if there are fundamental rules that control the shape, form, and behaviour of an engineered system, just as there are genes in nature. Once we do this we have to capture them in a way that makes them useful for engineering.

 If we can find these rules, and develop a new approach to engineering design, we could make things differently.  We could package these rules up as the genes in design seeds.  The seed would contain all the information needed to create say a bicycle, or a kettle.  We could create a design system that takes the seed and the engineer could nurture the seed to full growth rather than design it directly.  If we do things this way who knows what the design solutions will be – potentially something completely different that we could never have imagined.

Trevor Robinson