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“Bad Moon Rising”: Addressing the Climate Emergency Via Place-Based Decision-Making Intelligence – Implications for Policy and Practice

A Guest Blog by Rajinder Bhandal

It is accepted that product design and products are becoming increasingly complex. For instance, in automotive design, electric vehicles are steeped in design complexity with complex engineering issues to overcome. In fact, there is growing concern that electric vehicle battery production is harming the environment with serious implications for human rights due diligence. Electric vehicle battery production is complex, the process involves extracting seven “green metals” from mines across the globe. The main issue here is that, on the back of rising global demand for electric vehicles, these “green metals” are in fact a natural resource. And one day, these mines will be over mined leading to a situation of depleted mineral mines! 

Handfield and Linton nicely captured the essence of this, back in 2017, with their unforgettable work… The Living Supply Chain

“One of the major challenges relative to risk is sustainability. Many industry sectors that have “outsourced” their production networks to low-cost countries struggle with ensuring compliance to labor and human rights laws, as set forth by UN International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions” 

Handfield and Linton, 2017, p. 165

Addressing the climate emergency is a matter of urgency, and involves “everyone, everywhere, all at once”! Alongside this, it is also important to understand the impact of technological innovation on product design and the speed of decision-making at the hands of policy and the different types of policymakers. I was keen to unpack this, alongside the concept of place-based decision intelligence from a pragmatic lens, by hearing the thoughts of Dr Robert Harwood, CEO of Slingshot Simulations, based at Nexus, University of Leeds. Robert holds a PhD in Engineering alongside a wealth of experience in the engineering simulation software sector, including almost two decades based in the US. He has held a range of global leadership positions in modelling and simulation companies, spanning technical to corporate strategy, most recently with the market leader Ansys Inc. 

It is always wonderful to speak with Dr Harwood, who is completely passionate about his role and commitment towards addressing the climate emergency -thank you for your time. I am much obliged. 

(Screen Shot from Compass: EngineTM Place-Based Decision Intelligence Platform Courtesy of Slingshot Simulations)

Here are my questions to Dr Robert Harwood, who shared the following insight:

RB: Dr Harwood, looking back, you have over 15 years of expertise working in the US for Ansys. What are the key insights and trends in this industry, for instance in comparison to the USA and UK? Can you shed light on product modelling and simulation?

Robert Harwood: This is a great question Rajinder, and the answer is certainly multifaceted. 

What is clear is that product complexity today is orders of magnitude higher than it was 15 or even 10 years ago. To put this in context, we often forget that the iphone was only actually launched in 2007 and what that phone was capable of then is barely a fraction of what modern phones, if that is even the right name for them, can do. This pace of complexity increase is such that some now argue it has exceeded the pace at which humans can adapt so is driving an increased reliance on technology and digital solutions, like modelling and simulation, which in turn creates a feedback loop that further accelerates product complexity.  

In fact, in many cases it is only by augmenting the human factor with digital data and analysis solutions that the new levels of complexity can even be addressed – for example modern fighter aircraft would simply fall out of the sky were it not for automatic computer controls. And we are seeing this situation play out in front of our eyes right now with the debates about the role of artificial intelligence. 

Of course, the fundamental business drivers for product development companies remain – innovation, growth, profitability etcetera and in recent times we are seeing a significantly increased focus on ESG and decarbonisation. Many of the drivers for innovation now come from this latter source – just consider the investment and innovation now going into electric vehicle developments, renewable energy and carbon capture and sequestration, pervasive connectivity powered by 5G networks, autonomous vehicles and more. 

When it comes to the modelling and simulation industry specifically, the UK is undoubtedly a leader in this field along with the US. Many of the technologies that are used can trace their origins back to the UK or US government funded organisations – whether academia, the nuclear industry, defence community or bodies such as NASA. However today, most of the standalone industry leading commercial modelling and simulation providers have converged in the US, while some others remain smaller divisions within bigger European headquartered companies.

RB: In what way is product design becoming more complex and what are technological implications of this in industry and on the environment? 

Robert Harwood: You don’t have to go back too far, and product design and development was typically a relatively linear, iterative process across siloed departments. To illustrate this simply, and the reality is more complex but hopefully this conveys the principle, consider the design of an aircraft wing. The aircraft requirements will demand a certain amount of lift and drag performance to meet weight and airport constraints among other things. So, the aerodynamics department, likely starting from an existing design will run many fluid dynamics simulations to create a wing design. This wing profile, or outer mould line and the associated aerodynamic loads from the airflow, would then be passed over to the aerostructures team who will try and design the structural elements of the wing to be able to safely withstand the loads while satisfying weight constraints. Most likely they will identify that this cannot be achieved and so the information is passed back to the aerodynamics team for a second iteration. And so, it continues. 

In parallel, the electronics team are busy designing an antenna that needs to be embedded in the wing and it may be that once the aerodynamic-aerostructure teams converge, the antenna cannot fit into the wing. So, it takes a long time and a lot of costly engineering effort to converge on a design using this traditional siloed design and modelling and simulation approach. Today in product design, new ways of doing this are possible as so-called Multiphysics modelling and simulation tools are available that tightly couple the multidisciplinary design teams and eliminate much of the back and forth. This makes for a better end product, developed faster and at lower cost. 

In fact, product complexity is such that even so-called simple products have tightly interdependent design considerations and a systems level, multiphsyics design workflow is essential. This approach is rapidly gaining in maturity in engineered product design and development – pioneered in industries such as aerospace, defense, and automotive, and is now being used to accelerate the development of climate technologies such as wind turbines which are critically dependent on the interaction of aerodynamics, structural robustness, and electric motor design.

RB: What is place-based decision intelligence? Are there any gaps with regards to interventions towards a place-based decision-making intelligence to addressing the climate emergency?

Robert Harwood: According to Gartner, decision intelligence brings multiple traditional and advanced disciplines together to design, model, align, execute, monitor, and tune decision models and processes. In simple terms it links data, models, and simulations together to enable better, more holistic decisions to be made faster and at lower cost – without needing to be a data scientist! 

It is recognised as one of the leading technology trends. Place-based decision intelligence applies this general concept to problems related to location and that is what we at Slingshot Simulations are focused on. And more specifically, using our core patented IP that was over a decade in the development, we have packaged this capability into a single, easy to use software solution that enables place-based policy making decision makers accelerate their regions journey to net zero and build climate resilience. 

We do this in three ways. First our solution is prepopulated with the core energy, building and land use and mobility data sets needed to make holistic decisions, and it is open to ingest custom data. Second, it enables integrated analysis and simulation (the analogy of the multiphysics approach I described for product design and development) – such as combined carbon conversion analytics, flood simulation and traffic simulation so a truly interdependent assessment can be undertaken at speed. And these two capabilities unleash the third component which is the ability to use advanced data science to rapidly evaluate massive numbers of potential policy intervention combinations and prioritise them around the right criteria for that locale. 

With a climate emergency upon us, making a just set of decisions at speed is critical and our solution has been shown to accelerate the process by up to 80%. We are already seeing it used by multiple organisations for a number of climate related use cases, including North Northamptonshire Council’s net zero initiative and projects with the Department for Transport focused on local transport decarbonisation and to help build a more climate resilient transport network. We were also recently selected as a technology use case as part of the UK Government’s Transport Research and Innovation Board’s Digital Twin Roadmap 2035.

RB: What is the impact of policy? Is there a need to seriously begin reimaging policymaking?   

Robert Harwood: In the context of climate policy, the problems that placed-based decision makers are facing are both urgent and highly complex. They are not unidimensional and must consider not just the impact on carbon reduction but other factors such as mobility, health, deprivation, and fuel poverty among others. It is this interdependence that fuels the complexity and injects inertia into the decision-making process – a decision making process that is facing a deluge of data, constrained by domain expert, siloed analytics, and therefore struggles to sift and prioritise options at the scale and pace needed. 

I believe that place-based policy making, driven by the climate agenda, is ripe for the disruptive transformation that systems level Multiphysics design has brought to engineered product design over the past two decades and we at Slingshot Simulations are committed to helping those decision makers at the centre of this coming and needed transformation.

RB: Where does this leave practice when it comes to dealing with the climate emergency? 

Robert Harwood: The technology, like that developed at Slingshot is now ready to help policy makers make better, more holistic decisions faster, as they seek to achieve a just transition to net zero in the longer term while building climate resilience today. But it is not just technology, there are several other dimensions to consider. 

One is process – while I am not a local authority process expert, embedding digital and data-based solutions more tightly into the business case development process may help accelerate the time taken to go from a policy decision to practical action on the ground. 

And of course, there is the people element. It is a well-established fact that in the UK and somewhat globally there is a critical shortage of digital skills – it has been reported that in the UK alone there are more than a quarter of a million unfilled data science positions in the UK. While investment in skills development in this area is accelerating it is incumbent on the technology providers to make their solutions accessible to non-experts and democratise the power of data science to those who need to use it. Here at Slingshot Simulations, we recognise this and have a clear focus on the usability and accessibility of our product.

With much thanks to Dr Robert Harwood for this valuable insight shared on place-based decision making towards addressing the climate emergency. 

I hear hurricanes a-blowin’

I know the end is comin’ soon

I fear rivers over flowin’

I hear the voice of rage and ruin

~ Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bad Moon Rising ~