I am fascinated with systems, systems of many and any kinds – water resources, transportation, people, and nature to name a few. I think it has to do with all the working parts that come together cohesively (for the most part) to form a larger form or entity, it’s a kind of beauty among the complexities of life. Life is a giant system with many working elements, interconnected and interdependent, everything is affected by something else, it’s incredibly complex and yet it continues to move forward (for the most part) in a somewhat self-sustaining manner. This is also one of the reasons why I am so interested in the built environment. Civil Infrastructure is just a fancy word for systems that supply basic human needs such as water and energy. But within the built environment there lies the coexistence with the natural environment, and together, the two form a system, and if the built environment does not achieve balance with the natural, then the natural side deteriorates. It is a delicate balance that must be achieved, but once achieved, all the parts work smoothly and effortlessly, an elegant design.
But if we scale up from the built environment we see the City. The City is a conglomerate of buildings and parks and roads and other infrastructure, and together they form the environment of a population. And if we examine not just the physical aspects of the city, but the social and economic aspects as well, we see systems of people flowing and working and living and systems of money exchanging hands and companies rising and falling in an economic market. I like to think of the City as a giant living organism, constantly evolving to better adapt to the conditions with many cells each playing a part in the support of the organism.
There is actually a whole field of engineering dedicated to this kind of research and implementation which is called – rightly so – Systems Engineering. Systems Engineering is the practice of using mathematical concepts such as statistics and probability (along with the knowledge of human behavioral organization) to interpret real-world problems into mathematical and logical equations to be solved. It’s a critical analysis approach to a problem. There are other branches of Systems Engineering, such as Information Technology or Operations Research, but the overall goal is to come up with the most efficient solution, the problem becomes a simple (or not so simple) optimization problem. The applications for Systems Engineering are vast, this method of analysis can be applied to computing, finances, urban planning, manufacturing practices and many other fields. The applications are practically limitless. These engineers develop the most efficient ways of planning assembly lines that maximize profit and minimize cost or map out ambulance routes for the fastest times, or even determine how increase the effectiveness of delivering medical drugs to those who need it the most (both in urban and rural populations). To get an idea of how interconnected systems in cities are and how broad systems engineering can be, here’s a nice video by IBM that explains what they are doing (They have many categories such as cities, buildings, healthcare, education…all good examples of the applications of this field):
It’s an interesting field to be in, but in many cases it is directly linked to economics, financing and business. Cornell University’s Operations Research Major even offers specialized programs in Financial Engineering (and also in Public Health Logistics). Don’t get me wrong, those are both very important things in society (albeit, somewhat controversial ones, as Occupy Wall St. has shown) but when the Systems Engineer’s goal is to maximize profit, he or she may end up sacrificing other elements such as safety, natural resource protection, and jobs. In a way, it is this ”efficient” pathway that has landed this society in the hole we are, with a massive debt, failing economy, rising pollution and population and decreasing natural resources. After browsing IBM’s page, I knew that Systems, Computer and Operations Research Engineers were working towards greener technologies and sustainability. Instead of just having profit as their maximized goal, they also included sustainability and minimized environmental impact. I think this kind of thinking, applying Systems Thinking to the development of urban societies and a sustainable humanity will yield many fruitful results. Placing Sustainability (in Environmental, Social and Economic contexts) as a maximized goal shows that this society is acknowledging the importance of ensuring a cleaner and healthier future rather than just making a profit here and now.
I am not saying that if one wants to be sustainable, one has to give up profit. I think the general thought is that if you want to be sustainable, you’ll have to take out a few more bills out of the wallet. The idea is of course, in the long run, the investment will pay off, but many people aren’t interested in the long run. But Sustainability does not have to mean an immediate sacrifice of economic profit or immediate results. I watched a TED talk, not sure which one at the moment, in which a man described how analysts developed a method for a company’s produce manufacturing process that actually used recycled by-products and waste of the manufacturing process into their manufacturing process. In this way waste became a resource and the manufacturing process turned into a closed, self sustaining loop. In this case, the company not only reduced and recycled, they also saved a considerable amount of money! There are many opportunities to apply sustainable ideas in fields such as manufacturing processes and other fields. In fact, there is a growing interdisciplinary field called Industrial Ecology (relating to the systems field of industrial engineering) that focuses on the use of materials in a variety of systems and streamlining the production and use of these materials in the name of sustainability. These cases will actually save money instead of sucking it up, and you save the environment at the same time!
This applications are vast, and I think the results can be quite beneficial if we start prioritizing – what do we really want to maximize/minimize? Admittedly, I don’t really know a lot about Systems Engineering and the precise work it entails, but it’s something that I’m sure I will keep an eye on, especially as it’s applications continue to grow. Sustainability doesn’t have to mean a reduction of profit, it can provide benefits, not just for companies, but for government and citizens. After all, as a professor once told me, a city isn’t just a collection of green buildings, it’s an entire system and it’s that entire system that needs to be green. There are a growing number of companies that are starting to realize the importance of ”greening” technology and computer, systems and information engineers are understanding the impact they can have on issues such as international development and sustainability. Hopefully that will provide the kick this society needs to get running again…hopefully on renewable energy.