System Avatars

Innovation is risky.  But there are many ways to reduce the risk, and one is modelling developments first.

Modelling and simulation have been a part of science from the beginning, enabling us to play "what-if" games without the consequences of action in the real world.  Early models were physical and simple, but as we learned to express the world through mathematics and computers became available, we were able to build more and more complex models. 

These models existed at different scales and initially scaling up was imperfect - we had to pass parameters through from one size range to the next, often approximating our understanding of the lower levels as the size and complexity of the model grew.

Also, when I first joined the chemical industry, modelling was essentially a retrospective pastime.  The algorithms and the limited power of the available computers meant that a chemical plant could be modelled only with approximations and in timescales many times slower that the actual plant was running.   As understanding of the processes grew, the predictive algorithms improved in accuracy and the rapidly evolving computer power meant that real-time modelling became possible.  Within a couple of decades modelling moved from being a scientific curiosity to becoming an integral part of the control process.  Many plants are now run through a model that constantly monitors the plant and works out options for control parameters, how they affect the productivity and quality, and then implements decisions based on the plan strategy.

This increased computing power means that it is now possible to present options for the future of even complex systems and, especially, unpredictable ones.  As with many areas of technology, the military applications got a large share of the early funding in this area and, particularly in the USA, battlefield analysis software became the norm some time ago.  This was eventually "civilianised" and rechristened "situational awareness software" - and can now be found controlling traffic flows and the like.

One by-product of this ability to model complex hierarchical systems is that we have begun to think more about the interaction of components and systems in all sorts of applications.  No-one would seriously build a car or plane these days without first producing it "in silico".  In combination with computer controlled production machinery, it is possible to design, validate and produce new components and systems in these areas untouched by human hand.  The concept increasingly applies in other areas too - for example many new drugs are modelled at the molecular level to check for biological interactions, both intended and collateral.

These thoughts were prompted by a fascinating meeting I had last week with Terry Young from Brunel University.  I first met Terry a couple of years ago when he spoke at the launch of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Invention for Innovation (I4I) programme.  Since then we have discussed the use of health econometrics for a couple of our Innovation Platforms and noted his input into some of our programmes.  The last such event saw him talking to EPSRC about the RIGHT programme. 

RIGHT is, as the website says, a collaboration between seven UK universities to look at modelling and simulation tools used to support decision making across many industries and evaluate their applicability to the healthcare sector.  As with so many such ventures, they have reached a level of internal confidence that they have made progress and now need to engage with the outside world to check their status. 

Since Terry knew of our engagement with the Department of Health and the various business sectors that support healthcare, he was interested in what we thought.  What we found interesting was the idea of applying tools and techniques that work well in many other activities to running a healthcare organisation.   If Tesco can organise it such that no check-out queue is longer than 3 people, can the same techniques be applied to manage the waiting time in Accident and Emergency departments?  If a factory can produce a wide variety of custom built products cost effectively, can the same tools be used to ensure operating theatres are more effectively used? 

It's worth thinking about.


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:09

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