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Introducing engineering
Introducing engineering

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2.6.2 Uncertainty

Designing takes place under various degrees of uncertainty. This is another way to classify design. The early stages can be full of uncertainty, whilst later stages can be more routine. Indeed the whole design process may start with a rough specification of what is required. However, in all design projects it is not known how a design will perform until it is completed, tested and then used. Each design project is a response to a new situation. It would not be design otherwise. So designers face uncertainty in all they do. They try and reduce uncertainty by:

  • a.using models to predict how designs will behave
  • b.using experience gained from the performance of previous designs for similar problems.

As experience (of success and failure) increases and predictive models become more accurate, the inherent uncertainty in design decreases. A well-established technology that is matched to a well-established context has little uncertainty. In these circumstances designers have the task of creating variations and modifications on the basic design.

Once a design solution is well-understood, the production of variant designs becomes a mature business, where ingenuity goes into making the processes as efficient as possible. Managing design becomes more important than the fundamental activities of innovation and design.

In the building industry the creation of a new McDonalds restaurant uses the same well-established rules all over the world. Similarly, some types of automotive and electronics factories have become almost standard items. The machines and assembly lines can be established from a green field site in less than two years. These types of design are standard and routine. Design uncertainties are low but other uncertainties of unpredictable markets and competition remain.

However, large international companies retain a mix of innovative products and variant designs. They spread their risk across many products, recognising that they have to innovate to survive. Today's innovative products are the basis of tomorrow's variant designs.

Activity 14 (self-assessment)

The analysis in Section 2.6.2 identifies four sources of uncertainty:

  • vague or rough specification
  • unknown aspects of a design's behaviour
  • innovative technologies
  • unpredictable market demand.

Looking back over the examples of design so far in this section, identify an example illustrating each of the four sources of uncertainty.


Depending on which example you took, you may have come up with any of the following points:

  • a.The requirements may be vague; the specification may be poor, e.g. knitwear or handbags.
  • b.Unknown aspects of behaviour and performance.
  • c.Unpredictable market demand for the product.
  • d.Innovative technologies, e.g. turbo fan turbine blades.

Innovation has been identified as a critical component in business success. However, innovation involves uncertainty and risk. The imperatives for companies to move away from the routine to new contexts and new technologies are now very strong. However, the tendencies of many designers are to reduce uncertainty. They tend to be more like Telford than Brunel in the case of the Clifton suspension bridge. As we have discovered, designers cannot escape uncertainty but that does not stop them trying to minimise it where possible. To maintain a balance between staying within the bounds of known and well understood designs and exploring new possibilities, companies try to create a 'culture of innovation'.

Tim Brown has been a key figure in design and innovation and in 2012 held the position of CEO at IDEO, a leading design consultancy that has played an important role in increasing the understanding and improving design practice in a broad range of industries. Brown comments:

My message for business leaders is always, if you want to be more innovative, if you want to be more competitive, if you want to grow, you can't just think about what your next product's going to be or what your technology's going to be. You have to think about the culture that you're going to build that allows you to do this over and over and over again. ... Cultures are basically built around value; they're built around what people think are important. And if you evolve what you think is important, you can evolve the culture. I mean IBM is a great example of a company that went from being a highly technocratic technological culture to being essentially a management consulting culture today by changing what they thought was important.

You can't expect to change it overnight; it takes a lot of effort by a lot of people over a lot of time. But I absolutely believe it's possible to do. I think it's essential. I mean, let's face it, the world is changing so dramatically today that hardly any organisation is set up for the future. And so if we can't change our cultures, then essentially we're accepting that the organisations we have today will disappear and other ones will emerge to replace them. It's not a very optimistic view and it's also not one that shareholders will probably get very excited about.

(Brown, 2009)

In discussing technology, innovation and uncertainty we have concentrated on the functional or engineering performance of designs. However, there are other important features of any design, such as how a design appears to a customer. Appearance and feel of a product can be a major factor in the commercial success of the design and is the subject of 'industrial design'.