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Michael Lee is a wargaming consultant with CyberFen, a cyber resilience consultancy. He has previously served in the British Army and is a chartered engineer.
How would you characterise your current work?
I design games to solve problems. A client generally approaches me when they have a complex problem that requires lots of different people to work together and solve. If I can design a game that models that problem – that still contains the key factors of the problem but takes out the irrelevant complexity – then when the right people come together to play the game, they solve it within the confines of the game; and then that helps them solve the real world problem.
It looks like a traditional consultancy job in many ways – meeting clients, talking to them about their particular problems, and working with them to help them find solutions - it’s just that I’m also building a custom game. When running the game, there are usually around 20-30 people in a room and my job is facilitation - I’ll be in charge, controlling everything. The sort of people I need participating in the game can’t normally give up more than a day, so that’s usually the limit. Afterwards they’ll be a period of analysis.
This method of solving problems started in defence, in the armed forces. They have a long history of using war games to solve operational dilemmas, so it wasn’t a huge leap to convince them they can solve other problems using similar techniques. I’m now trying to convince bigger business they can solve problems like cybersecurity using these techniques – the tricky bit is convincing them that what looks like a game will actually give a tangible, useful outcome.
How do you feel about maths?
I think maths is ace. It’s absolutely fundamental to most of what I do. My dad was and is a maths lecturer at Bolton University, so of course I did engineering by way of rebellion. The way the news is being used in politics is something I think about a lot in relation to maths, because there is so much uncertainty. Every day you see issues reported in mathematical language in the news which are just plain wrong – but with a little bit of mathematical literacy/critical thinking people would be armed against accepting things like that at face value. One of the things my dad did a lot of was working on critical thinking - he worked with the NHS to help them deal with some of their statistics literacy issues.
What is it about your work that is mathematical?
Two elements in particular: one is that I’m ultimately looking at technical problems in engineering - and that involves the application of maths. Secondly, the mathematical design of the game itself, because it has to be balanced. For example, I designed a game for the Ministry of Defence looking at how they broadcast communications for large populations (one example might be the Ebola epidemic and the need to change burial practices to reduce contagion).
There are different mathematical ideas in that problem - one level was about the different types of broadcast (e.g. radio waves and cellular technology) and how these broadcasts propagate; but this has to be looked at in combination with the platform that’s carrying the broadcast technology (e.g. helicopters, aeroplanes or drones) which will change everything from the altitude the broadcast can be made from, the length of antenna that can be used for the broadcast and the distance and time over which the broadcast can be made. The game was about balancing these factors to optimise reach in a variety of scenarios and environments.
How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?
My work often depends on understanding the outputs of maths, but I’m not normally doing the sums myself – I have to be able to talk to mathematicians in their language (I work with several mathematicians). I use Excel for calculations, logic, if and what statements, multiplications, Monte Carlo-type simulation. I’m literate enough to know when I need it, but I’m not the person running it.
Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?
Yes, because it is problem solving. There are problems that don’t involve maths – but nearly all maths is problem solving. You have to be creative to be good at maths – I think that’s something you don’t realise until you step out of the classroom in the real world, because you have to have the vision and imagination to be able to make a problem into something that you can then solve in the real world.
For example, with the Ministry Of Defence example I mentioned earlier, a lot of creativity comes into trying to imagine and predict how far communications will propagate but also how a population of a certain density would interact with it and how receptive they might be to certain formats and media. All these factors then have to be linked together and built into an equation to represent their relationships, which can then be the model we use during the game.
Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?
For me, it comes back to whether you’re doing it or understanding it – I have to understand how integration works, for example, although I’m not necessarily doing the sums. If you asked me to do a Fourier transform right now, I might fall off my chair – but I know what one is, and how it might be used. I think pretty much everything up to A-Level is in constant use for me.
How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?
I would like it to promote more critical thinking – when we talk about ‘real life maths’ it seems often to be about making change in shops or tax – but I think it should be about people making assessments of the world around them, which is also more engaging for students and has the potential to create change for society. We talk about teaching children to be critical thinkers, but I’m not sure that’s something that always permeates through to mathematics and statistics. Most news ends up being a subjective view of a subjective source, there’s very little to rely on there – but with critical eyes for statistics, there’s at least a potential for an objective truth on which to make more sound judgements.