Systems Engineering Today and Tomorrow

In the “History of Systems Engineering”, we talked about the sweep of engineering history, how as technology evolved, so too did the challenges. Engineers needed holistic, systematic solutions to address these challenges, and through practices and principles tested for success, systems engineering provided those solutions. However, the world continues to grow more complex, and the challenges continue to evolve. This blog gives our thoughts about systems engineering in the present and the future.

The 1960s saw two new challenges beginning to emerge, that accelerated from the 1970s through the 1990s: 1). awareness of the human factor, and 2). improvements to software functionality.

Since the 1960s, systems engineers have begun to account for the human factor. Early systems engineering was dominated by academics, scientists, and engineers who viewed people like they were machines performing repetitive tasks. Ignoring the human factor, leadership was strong-willed, stubborn, even dictatorial at times. By the 1960s, this started to change. People began to take the human factor seriously, and so they began to transition from traditional systems engineering towards “soft” systems engineering.

Traditional systems engineering is like the construction of a car. You have blueprints that tell you how to construct a car, and when you complete those blueprints, you have the end product. It’s a finished job. “Soft” systems engineering is like the development of software. You don’t necessarily know what the finished project will be because you are constantly working on it and updating it. It’s a work in progress. Systems engineers transitioned to “soft” systems engineering so that they could tailor their products to the demands of their customers more effectively. Whereas traditional systems engineering was one size fits all, “soft” systems engineering is custom.

In addition, improvements to software over time has caused its own set of hurdles. Software engineering emerged as a related discipline to systems engineering, applying the principles of the lifecycle to computational system. Over time, software has progressed. By the 1990s, it was much more functional than back in the 1970s, and with this new functionality comes new difficulties. Software has also gotten significantly more complex, which exacerbated the matter.

The modern age has seen rapid advancements in technology – a fourth industrial revolution, as some call it. Scientists were able to draft a map of the human genome using statistical models generated by advanced computing technology. They have also been able to modify the human germline, tinkering with the very fabric of our species. Facebook has been able to network billions of people across the world as one monolithic application. And in September 2014, the Obayashi Corporation announced that in 38 years, it could build a space elevator with carbon nanotube technology. This rapid exponential growth in technology is nothing short of staggering.

However, despite the awesome possibilities that technology can afford us in the modern age, the tasks have become just formidable. Systems have become more interoperable, but new sources of vulnerability (i.e., cyberattacks) have sprung up. The rate of innovation has increased, and so has the rate of obsolescence. Technologies have incredible capabilities, but they are immature, and their objectives may be incompatible with ours. And of course, systems have been increasingly complex.

Systems of systems are a good indicator of the modern age’s complexity. As a large number of systems are networked together, a system of systems is an intricate organism. The rapid growth of technology means that systems of systems are composed of constantly changing systems. This added layer of unpredictability makes for a difficult environment.

Going into the future, systems engineers will face even more complexities. The INCOSE Systems Engineering Vision 2025 listed three tasks that systems engineers will have to face. Future systems will need to respond to an ever growing and diverse spectrum of societal needs in order to create value. They’ll have to harness the ever-growing body of technology innovations while protecting against unintended consequences. And they’ll need to be engineered by an evolving, diverse workforce. The way systems engineers respond to these challenges will determine the future direction of systems engineering – and engineering in general.

The future of technology is an exciting prospect. The sky no longer is the limit. And at the forefront of it all is systems engineering. New technologies have always brought with them new challenges, and through good systems thinking, humans throughout time have been able to overcome these challenges. Let’s commit to good systems thinking today, to invest in more flexible solutions, so that we may arrive at a brighter tomorrow.