Thinking in Systems: what does it mean for engineering in policy?

The Engineering in Policy Network met with Shabana Haque from the Royal Academy of Engineering, Adam Cooper from University College London and Louise Dunsby from the Cabinet Office to discuss the role of systems approaches in the policy process and how these approaches mirror the benefits that an engineering mindset can bring to policy problems. 

Here we have captured some of the themes of the discussion between our panellists and the resources that are available for those that wish to learn more about systems approaches. 

Systems approaches are a way of thinking, a set of concepts, and a toolkit that enable us to manage messiness and focus on outcomes. They recognise that problems, including policy problems, are not just made up of a set of components (actors or stakeholders), but also include the relationship between those components. These relationships lead to complex interactions and therefore unexpected outcomes. 

Systems approaches encourage a bigger picture view. They bring breadth and a range of perspectives to the policy making process. In contrast to a traditional cost-benefit analysis, they do not assume linearity, making it possible to see things that you would otherwise miss. However, it’s important to be aware of the limitations of systems approaches. They are a metaphor, a representation of the real world. As with all policy tools, systems approaches are best combined with other sources of evidence to interrogate the policy from multiple angles. 

There are parallels between systems approaches and the perspective that engineers bring to policy problems. Engineers are integrators and collaborators, who bring multiple aspects of the system together to develop practical solutions. In a policy context, these aspects might be technical, legal, financial or societal. Engineers are trained to look at the system as a whole – including the components and the interactions between them – and systems approaches push one towards a system-wide view. Although this training is seen most clearly in systems engineering, it is a thread that runs through the engineering disciplines.  Engineers are driven by a desire to make things work better and develop practical solutions, which mirrors the outcomes focus of systems approaches.

However, there is still work to be done to gain the full benefits of systems approaches. A common language that can be understood by both engineers and policy professionals is missing. This disconnect means that ways of working that use the concepts less formally and don’t lean on technical language can be more successful. In addition, there is still a lack of understanding about how to operationalise systems approaches which could in part be addressed through case studies.

Similarly, we are not yet in a position to gain as much as we can from engineers in the policy process. Engineering and policy disciplines have evolved separately and so they lack a common language or mutual understanding of the roles both parties play. Academic research into the use of technical expertise has focused on scientific advice, leaving a knowledge gap around how best to use engineering expertise to produce good policies.

We at the Engineering in Policy Network are extremely grateful to our panelists for their brilliant discussion of the questions we posed to them. If you would like to help us to arrange similar events do get in touch at


Shabana highlighted the following Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) opportunities and materials:

  1. The Royal Academy of Engineering runs Policy Fellowships. This intensive professional development programme builds stronger connections between policymakers and the technical community in support of better evidence-based policymaking. 
  2. The RAEng has developed a Systems Offer including introductory training and bespoke workshops. For more information contact:
  3. The RAEng Sustainable Living Places project. This gives a systems perspective on planning, housing and infrastructure. The explainers have been designed to give an accessible introduction to systems dynamics and participatory mapping. 
  4. Creating systems that work is a report from 2007 focusing on setting out systems engineering, its key principles and contribution. 
  5. Engineering Better Care is a report from 2017 which draws on a framework of thinking in terms of systems, risk, design and people. 
  6. The RAEng NEPC launch paper for the decarbonisation project: A systems approach to the decarbonisation challenge (2020).  Supported the CST Letter to the Prime Minister advocating the use of systems approaches across government for achieving the net zero target.
  7. Critical capabilities: strengthening UK resilience just published. Drawing on lessons from four past emergencies, this report explores how an engineer’s systems view can help identify critical capabilities that the people, infrastructure and assets that need for an effective response.

Louise highlighted the following reading materials and training courses:

  1. Free courses on systems thinking through Open Learn, the free learning materials site from the Open University. 
  2. The Munro Review of Child Protection (2011) is an example of systems thinking being used in a non-engineering policy context.
  3. A systems-based tool kit developed by Prof John Clarkson at the University of Cambridge. This kit includes tools and guidance for applying the framework developed in Engineering Better Care cited above. 
  4. For Civil Servants, there are a few systems thinking courses available though Civil Service Learning.
  5. Louise contributed an article, titled “How to embed public sector equality duty (PSED) in policy making” to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Engineering better policy report. The article discusses how system thinking can be applied to the PSED policy area.

Adam highlighted the following reading material and study opportunities:

  1. Adam was lead author for  “Engineering advice in policy making: a new domain of inquiring in evidence and policy making” [Cooper, Adam C.G ; Marvulli, Lorenzo; Black, Katie; Holmes, John; Mehta, Harshal; Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice, Volume 17, Number 2, May 2021]
  2. UCL’s department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) has a range of research and teaching strands applicable to the topics discussed above. 
  3. Within STEaPP, the Masters in Public Policy (MPA) includes develops student’s understanding of systems approaches.
  4. Systems thinking resources through the Donella Meadows Academy