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An embodied realist framework of complexity and expertise in mechatronic project work

Time: Fri 2023-09-22 10.00

Location: Kollegiesalen, Brinellvägen 8, Stockholm

Video link:

Language: English

Subject area: Machine Design

Doctoral student: Elias Flening , Maskinkonstruktion (Inst.)

Opponent: Professor David Bradley, Emeritus Abartey University

Supervisor: Docent Martin Grimheden, ; Universitets lektor Anna Jerbrant, Industriell ekonomi och organisation (Inst.)


Mechatronic development project work contains high levels of complexity and demands expertise in equal measure. In the context of global declining productivity gains from engineering work and persistent wicked problems in mechatronic system development – with long-reported challenges like a lack of common system understanding, absence of a common language for concepts, and disparate mental models – understanding real-world perceptions of complexity and competence becomes critical.

The aim is to address the underlying concern in these challenges (i.e., declining productivity) by problematizing their inherent assumptions of unity as a solution-heuristic. Instead, taking an organizing perspective on these challenges based on Project Studies, alternative assumptions are offered which hold these same underlying concerns. The thesis then explores how perceptions of expertise (RQ1.1) and complexity (RQ1.2) are generated in the lived experience of mechatronic project work, both at the individual and team levels. The thesis also asks how expertise and complexity are experienced in actual mechatronic project work: what makes their experiential relation (RQ2)?

To answer the research questions, an abductive approach using mixed methods is taken over the five included publications to iteratively produce a framework. Using both quantitative (surveys) and qualitative (interviews & observations), the framework is constructed based on two theories: Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) and the Integrated Theory of Primary Metaphor (ITPM). LCT is used to explain how knowledge relate to expertise, and how expertise connects to complexity. ITPM is used to explain how the micro-level dynamics of complexity-perception in individuals are determined by embodied conceptual metaphor. Which is a mostly unconscious cognitive process whereby concrete physical sensorimotor sensations are conflated with basic conceptual categories (e.g., conflating warmth with affection) called primary metaphors. These primary metaphors integrate into single embodied conceptual metaphors which directly represents highly abstract ideas such as complexity and expertise.

The thesis found the following: that perceptions of expertise are generated based on a three-part model of expertise: the model states that expertise constitutes an ability to enact technical knowledge, through collaborating in social networks of professional actors, by continually recognizing what the present legitimate basis for practice is. Complexity in turn is experienced as that which is perceived as important and difficult, through several dimensions of complexity and driven by specific factors. With size being an empirically observed underlying logic for that perception. Answering RQ2 using ITPM, the framework show that complexity and competence, two abstract concepts, are experienced directly through sensorimotor perceptions, physical experiences, in everyday mechatronic project work. The experiential relation between these two abstract concepts and direct physical experience is constituted by embodied conceptual metaphor, out of which the thesis found one novel metaphor in the case study data.

The thesis’ findings, synthesised in the framework, affords a granular and realist view of the identified mechatronic challenges concerned with common language and understanding. This view free both mechatronic project team-members from the assumption of unity in a way that does not through throw the baby out with the bathwater: By removing the expectation and valuation of unity as naturalized without throwing out efforts to create consensus and move the project forward. A more realistic and pragmatist stance which realizes and makes non-personal the mechanics of competence and complexity serves to open up for free discussion (one of the four core mechatronic challenges). The framework affords a context-sensitive model for promoting own understanding of the internal mechanisms in one’s mind and other’s minds. Essentially serving the same type of function as the V-model: a “reminder model that guide us to less perilous paths when developing solutions to problems” (Mooz & Forsberg, 2006, p. 1368). 

All of this, instead of yet another attempt at a unified holistic system model based on non-real platonic ideals.