Book Review on “Engineering Systems: meeting human needs in a complex technological world” by de Weck, Roos & Magee (2011), MIT Press

This book was published in 2011, and I purchased in 2013 for the preparation of CVL609, Civil Engineering Systems. I just read it second time, and I believe it deserves more reading.

This books is revolutionary. Most of our teaching is still focusing on, at most, the epoch of complex systems. However, the authors warned us: The epoch of great inventions and artifacts has gone, and even the epoch of complex systems is phasing out. To equip our students with 21-century skills and techniques, we need to embrace the epoch of Engineering Systems, which I believe the words should be converted to a proper noun to highlight its major difference from traditional systems engineering.

In Chapter 2, the authors highlight five major characteristic of Engineering Systems:

  • Existence in the real world (i.e., physical systems)
  • Artificial (man-made vs. natural environment)
  • Dynamic properties (i.e., partially evolved and partially designed)
  • Hybrid state (mix of continuous and discrete states)
  • Some human control

The partially evolved and partially designed feature of Engineering Systems is a sharp observation that we rarely learn from other texts. A difficulty in dealing with urban infrastructure issues may be attributed to this dynamic property of urban infrastructure systems.

What really separates Engineering Systems from conventional large complex system is the interaction of the existing system and human activities. Highway transportation system is a typical example. Because of this, the subject of Engineering Systems calls for the study and application of not only mathematics and natural sciences, but also social sciences, economics, and management. With the advancement of Big Data, deep learning, and artificial intelligence, civil infrastructure systems are evolving to a complex artifact that is deeply interwoven with cyber, social, and technology complexities. Very soon, our civil engineering students will be asked to learn, beyond optimization and decision theory that we are currently learning at CVL609, more general systems methodologies such as graph and network theory, system dynamics, general economic equilibrium, among others that are currently mainly in researchers’ minds.


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