OR Past, Present and Future - The Blackett Memorial Lecture 2023

To celebrate The OR Society’s 75th anniversary, the 2023 Blackett Memorial Lecture invited three distinguished speakers to explore operational research across time.

Dr Gilbert Owusu, President of The OR Society, introduced Dr Roger Forder, Fellow of The OR Society, to discuss the roots of operational research, Dr Paul Clark CBE FREng – an independent adviser to government, industry and start-ups to explore where our physical and digital worlds collide, and finally, Professor Alison Etheridge, Professor of Probability in the University of Oxford to introduce the Academy for the Mathematical Sciences.


Operational Research: Roots in Retrospect

Dr. Forder traced OR's beginnings to World War II. He noted OR might have a different name if not for the war. The term "operational research" stemmed from OR's role in strengthening Britain's air defences. Analysing the complex air defence system demanded a holistic understanding of radar, fighters, communication, and control rooms so a team of experts worked together, giving rise to the term "operations research."

He said the wartime era fuelled OR's growth and trailblazers like Blackett played a vital role. His team "Blackett's Circus," contributed immensely to wartime events, solidifying OR's status within the armed forces.

OR Beyond the War Post-war

Post-war OR gained traction in civilian life. Figures like Sir Charles Goodeve and Charles Ellis championed OR in the steel and coal industries. Goodeve established the Operational Research Club in 1948 and The OR Quarterly, now recognised as the Journal of the Operational Research Society. Ellis established The National Coal Board OR team, later renamed the ‘Operational Research Branch,’ becoming the UK’s leading OR Group.

The Evolution to Modern-Day OR

Blackett's early principles for OR emphasised group collaboration, engagement with senior leadership, and an understanding of the operational intricacies. While these were ‘a gold standard’ for years, operational research has evolved. Today, various organisational models exist, and OR draws talents from broader scientific and mathematical backgrounds, not just physicists and engineers.

So, does the war have a continuing influence on OR?

Roger concluded that war created a ‘hot house’ that ‘turbo charged’ OR’s development. However, it did not provide a toolbox but a robust philosophy and confidence in applying diverse scientific methods to problem-solving, which underpins modern OR. One continuing influence is attracting diverse people from scientific backgrounds who want to use their skills in an analytical way to solve pressing issues in society.

Where our physical and digital worlds collide

Paul Clarke, an Independent Advisor to Government, Industry, and Start-ups explored the convergence of our physical and digital worlds. Formerly Ocado's former Chief Technology Officer, Paul's expertise spans disruptive technologies like data, AI, IoT, digital twins, and robotics.

He highlighted the significance of addressing global challenges by combining non-linear digital and physical interventions, emphasising the synergy between these realms. He provided examples of combating climate change through deploying clean energy-powered smart machines to monitor, clean, and rehabilitate the planet.

The Power of Modelling and Simulation

Dr. Clarke highlighted mathematical models and synthetic environments are undervalued. People mistakenly associate synthetic environments just with digital twins, but synthetic technology is broader. He distinguished between digital shadows and true digital twins using a London traffic optimisation project example. He said creating a model would involve gathering data and simulating a road network to understand behaviours and potential interventions. A digital shadow is then built - a comprehensive model for testing improvements like traffic light timings. However, a true digital twin only emerges when insights from the shadow are applied to the real world, implementing adjustments based on digital shadow findings.

The benefits of synthetic environments

Synthetic environments are bridges between physical and digital realms, facilitating exploration and understanding of real world processes. They are used in the engineering lifecycle of complex machines, such as the building of modern jet engines, simulating high-level conceptual designs or the detailed testing of component parts.

These environments can stress-test the behaviour of AI before being let loose or to be used to generate synthetic data for AI training. For example, Ocado uses synthetic environments to train virtual robots to pick and pack products before integrating them into living labs, where they operate alongside physical robots.

So why aren’t more organisations using simulation?

However, most organisations shy away from simulations as they are too ‘exotic.’’ They do not understand how to acquire, nurture, and use simulations, particularly digital twins. Paul proposes an open-source ecosystem as a solution - a Lego-like assembly of shared tools, frameworks, and platforms - to democratise model building, making it faster, affordable, and inclusive.

However, the true potential lies in integrating digital twins across various sectors - airplanes, airlines, traffic control, transportation networks - creates comprehensive digital replicas, aligning with initiatives like the National Digital Twins Programme, which is planning a digital twin of the UK.

Also, he advocates using virtual worlds for education, learning, problem-solving. By gamifying real-world scenarios, we can influence behaviour on issues such as climate change. Like a well-blended cake, a combination of ingredients (technologies and competencies), utensils (tools and infrastructure), and the recipe (culture, leadership, and vision) are needed for this transformative technology. In conclusion, Paul said synthetic environments could shape better future for the UK and the planet. He envisions a federated planetary system driven by digital twins, offering optimised, self-managed ecosystems all built within synthetic environments.

The Academy for the Mathematical Sciences

Professor Alison Etheridge, the University of Oxford's Probability Professor and current Chair of the Council of Mathematical Sciences, presented plans for the Academy for the Mathematical Sciences, a recommendation from the 2018 Bond Review.

The Academy’s strapline, “Benefitting our world through the power of mathematical sciences,” encapsulates its goal: to end fragmentation within the mathematical science community and be a persuasive and authoritative voice representing mathematical sciences.

What is the role of the new Academy?

Planned for 2025, the Academy will advocate on behalf of mathematical sciences, provide evidence-based guidance to influence policy and ensure the health of the discipline by building a pipeline of talent as well as championing research to support UK plc. Professor Etheridge detailed the Academy’s formation process and its envisioned role in shaping policy decisions and its funding requirements.

In the Autumn Statement, the Chancellor announced £6m funding for the establishment of a National Maths Academy and while this funding has not yet been allocated to a specific academy, this project will be part of the tender process. Once launched, Alison said the Academy will provide an incredible service to the community, play a pivotal role in shaping the mathematical landscape and when launched we will owe a huge debt of gratitude to the founders.

The session concluded with an interactive Q&A, offering insights into OR, the fusion of physical and digital worlds, and the forthcoming Academy for Mathematical Sciences.