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Safer Governance of Complex Systems

Format: Papers, RSD12, RSD12 Papers Pre-release

Hazel Ingham, Ana Andrade, Chris Elliott and Meaghan O’Neil
The Engineering X £5 million, global Safer Complex Systems programme aims to enhance the safety of complex infrastructure systems globally. The programme strategy focuses on four key areas: Govern, Advocate, Educate, Convene. Governance of complex systems includes the laws and regulations that govern their design and operation, and the management structure that is put in place to design, engineer, and operate the system as well as the norms, cultural understandings, and assumptions by those who operate within and around it. Governance often consists of a heterogenous group of players including national governments, international bodies, shareholders, regulators, standards organisations, the criminal justice system, professional and accountancy bodies, and trade unions and the larger institutional structures, frameworks, and norms in which they are embedded.

The emergent properties of systems present a major challenge to effective governance, magnified by the need to work with both old and new technologies. Governance of complex systems must also handle legitimate but increasingly divergent societal attitudes, which is especially challenging when it comes to issues with longer timelines, such as climate change.

Advocating safety in complex systems is difficult because it requires a knowledge management approach that can understand the individual, societal and physical layers of the systems people are embedded in. Agency, inclusion, diversity and human-centred technologies and infrastructures are key in delivering solutions to wicked challenges.

The Govern workstream has recently commissioned four “think pieces”, exploring how complex systems are governed and regulated with the aim of provoking new conversations on governance of complex systems. The think pieces explore two areas, the first centred on institutions, culture and regulations with topics ‘regulations fit for complexity’ and ‘learning from failure’, and the second on societal base analysis exploring two case studies, one on ‘challenges in the governance of the energy system in Africa’ and the other on ‘fire safety and governance in Dhaka and Cape Town. A synthesis piece will interweave the conclusions reached by the think pieces. This paper will present the emerging conclusions and opportunities with the aim of beginning conversations with the participants of RSD12 that will inform future work of the programme.

The programme has developed a large library of case studies ( on complex systems which will also be referenced.

Engineering X ( is an international collaboration founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation that brings global experts together to engineer change.
Keywords: Governance of complex systems
Emergent properties
Case study approach
Fire safety
Energy sector
Laws and regulations fit for complexity
Socioeconomic systems
Systems in developing countries
Ad hoc and informal sountries
Participatory and collaborative mechanisms




Citation Data

Author(s): Hazel Ingham, Ana Andrade, Chris Elliott and Meaghan O'Neil
Year: 2023
Title: Safer Governance of Complex Systems
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Volume: RSD12
Article No.: pre-release
Host: Georgetown University
Location: Washington DC, USA
Symposium Dates: October 6–20, 2023
First published: 30 September 2023
Last update: no update
Publisher Identification: ISSN 2371-8404

Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD12

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