Where are the systems engineers when we need them?

As Hurricane Sally crawls toward the Louisiana shores of the Gulf of Mexico, her 80 mph sustained winds are no match for the lashing 150 mph gust of her category 4 older sister Laura. But where Laura strode into Lake Charles, Louisiana driving her swath of damage forward at a rapid clip, Sally is merely creeping. What Sally lacks in winds and speed she makes up for in rain produced in her extended stay over each area. At her slow pace, she is expected to leave behind up to two feet of precipitation making for record-breaking floods.

While the sisters were blowing and raining the Gulf Coast into soggy shreds, wildfires were roaring across the West, leaving devastation and desolation behind them. Woodlands starved for water and scorched by the summer heat are easily ignited by a variety of sources ranging from lightning strikes to wayward pyrotechnics from innocent “gender reveal” parties.

As different as fire and water are, these disasters may well have common roots in climate change and global warming. Seeing how the incidence of destructive agents like fire and water are related requires a view of the larger system in which they are operating. Taking that view is the special skill of people schooled in systems thinking.

Understanding that the response of society to such systemic problems will have far-reaching effects is a critical aspect of systems thinking applied in the sociotechnical arena. Some solutions may address the problem at hand but, at the same time, produce effects that exacerbate other problems or even introduce new ones. Navigating the twisting and turning circles of cause and effect to arrive at the best solution is no easy task. It requires seeing the problems and potential solutions at the system level and using creativity and skill in system design to craft the solutions. In short, this is a job—a really big job—to which systems engineers can make a substantial contribution.

Every good systems engineer knows that the first task of systems engineering is to understand the problem and to grasp it at the system level. This calls for taking a system view and using systems thinking to consider its ramifications. In his excellent primer, Systems Thinking. Applied., Robert Edson frames systems thinking in three elements: synthesis, analysis and inquiry. Synthesis (or synthetic thinking) considers the system as a whole, while analysis (or analytic thinking) seeks understanding by breaking the system into its constituent parts. Edson cites the seminal systems thinker Russell Ackoff as teaching that synthesis expands our focus while analysis reduces it. Both are important to understanding systems but work optimally only when used in concert.

Looking at the fire and water disasters both synthetically and analytically calls the systems thinker to ask why they happen and how they might be related. Are the ignition sources (lightning, pyrotechnics etc.) significantly more prevalent than they were 20 years ago? Is the fuel stock different now than in the past? Are hotter temperatures and drier weather patterns serving to produce a drier, more flammable stock of fuel for wildfires? Why do we experience more and stronger hurricanes now as compared to decades past? Is the number and ferocity of hurricanes related to the warmer temperatures in the Gulf and Caribbean? Is there a relationship between the climate conditions around the fires and those behind the hurricanes?

From the causes of fires and storms, the systems thinker can build a broader picture, approaching the problems as manifestations of a bigger system—the global climate. Building on this foundation, the systems thinker can begin to think about how to deal with the problems, to construct and test hypotheses and potential solutions. This is Edson’s third element of systems thinking—inquiry—and the one that leads directly to the “engineering” in systems engineering. Systems thinkers seek to understand systems; systems engineers seek to extend that thinking into intervention and solutions. It is systems engineers who are equipped by their professional focus to both understand problems systemically and craft solutions to them. For systems engineers, the use of a blend of synthesis, analysis, and inquiry should come naturally.

The problems in this area don’t stop at fires and storms. The same global warming is causing a myriad of other problems. Last year, after recognizing that the Tidewater Virginia area around the port of Hampton Roads was facing an inexorable rise in the sea level in the port and surrounding waters, the U.S. Navy joined with the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach in publishing a report discussing the measures needed to protect Naval Station Norfolk as well as roads, schools, hospitals and businesses in the surrounding community from the rising water. Polar icecaps melting in the warming climate are causing seal levels to rise and create the kind of threat that military and civilian authorities banded together in Virginia to address.

The process of finding solutions to these dangers doesn’t stop at the U.S. coastlines. The Global Strategic Partnership, a group led by RAND Europe, recently issued a report on the implications of climate change for defense and security in the UK. The report assumes as a given that, even with the implementation of the efforts called for in the Paris Accords of 2016, global temperatures will rise well above the 1.5°C that is regarded as the upper limit of safety, reaching an increase of 3.5-4.0°C by century’s end.

According to the report, this rise will precipitate shortages beginning as early as 2030 of food, water and energy which could well give rise to civil strife and riots. The increases in temperature also make exotic disease outbreaks more likely with ensuing breakdowns in healthcare delivery systems. There are other problems for the UK military, like the opening up of Arctic regions and routes that could become the source of struggle for control. Clearly, the problems of global warming extend well beyond the direct results in climatic changes and altered weather patterns and intensities. The effects of changes in this complex, interdependent global system spiral out from any linear expectations to create unanticipated and unwelcome social, political, biomedical and environmental problems. The only way to anticipate and deal proactively with them is through systems thinking and understanding.

The expertise for understanding the specific nature of such problems and their possible solutions is widely distributed among professions in many disciplines—engineering (of all stripes), medicine, law, politics, economics and a variety of others spanning social and technical fields. When society convenes the problem-solvers to address those problems, there must be a place (or places) at the table with these professionals and decision-makers for systems thinkers and systems engineers.

Systems engineers will likely seek and find an obvious place in the search for technological answers. The crafting of technology to respond to these problems is a classic venue for their knowledge and skills. But technology alone cannot provide answers that do not bring with them systemic consequences and problems into the mix. Because systems engineers should be equipped to bring to bear their expertise in seeing, understanding, and anticipating the consequences of systemic modifications, society can ill afford to limit them to purely technical roles. Their ability to see and understand problems at the systems level and to craft practical solutions that will work given the boundaries and constraints inherent in them should be extended beyond technology into the realms of sociotechnical and policy decisions.

There are hard choices to be made, and systems engineers are good at making them. But, their obligation and purpose cannot stop at the exercise of their skills; they should step forward to share their training and experience with their fellow decision-makers so that these critical decisions can be made in the light of the systems understanding. We need good systems engineering now more than ever!

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