Social Systems Engineering

The Design of Complexity
Wiley (Verlag)
  • erschienen am 25. Oktober 2017
  • |
  • 312 Seiten
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978-1-118-97442-1 (ISBN)
Uniquely reflects an engineering view to social systems in a wide variety of contexts of application
Social Systems Engineering: The Design of Complexity brings together a wide variety of application approaches to social systems from an engineering viewpoint. The book defines a social system as any complex system formed by human beings. Focus is given to the importance of systems intervention design for specific and singular settings, the possibilities of engineering thinking and methods, the use of computational models in particular contexts, and the development of portfolios of solutions. Furthermore, this book considers both technical, human and social perspectives, which are crucial to solving complex problems.
Social Systems Engineering: The Design of Complexity provides modelling examples to explore the design aspect of social systems. Various applications are explored in a variety of areas, such as urban systems, health care systems, socio-economic systems, and environmental systems. It covers important topics such as organizational design, modelling and intervention in socio-economic systems, participatory and/or community-based modelling, application of systems engineering tools to social problems, applications of computational behavioral modeling, computational modelling and management of complexity, and more.
* Highlights an engineering view to social systems (as opposed to a "scientific" view) that stresses the importance of systems intervention design for specific and singular settings
* Divulges works where the design, re-design, and transformation of social systems constitute the main aim, and where joint considerations of both technical and social perspectives are deemed important in solving social problems
* Features an array of applied cases that illustrate the application of social systems engineering in different domains
Social Systems Engineering: The Design of Complexity is an excellent text for academics and graduate students in engineering and social science--specifically, economists, political scientists, anthropologists, and management scientists with an interest in finding systematic ways to intervene and improve social systems.
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César García-Díaz, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. César's expertise is in the field of agent-based social simulation.
Camilo Olaya, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. Camilo is a researcher in model-based engineering of private and public systems with more than 15 years of experience in this field.

Introduction: The Why, What and How of Social Systems Engineering

César García-Díaz and Camilo Olaya

The Very Idea

The expression 'social systems engineering' is not new. As far as we know, its first appearance in the literature dates from the mid-1970s. In 1975, the Proceedings of the IEEE published a special issue on social systems engineering (Chen et al., 1975). Here, Chen and colleagues referred to social systems engineering as the application of systems engineering concepts to social problems. Likewise, the special issue seemed to emphasize that the potential contribution of engineering to social issues was predominantly based on the consideration of quantitative modelling as the workhorse for intervention. Although we concur with some of these points, for us the expression 'social systems engineering' has a broader connotation, not meaning that we advocate exclusively for the application of engineering methods to social issues, but rather that we stand up for the consideration of design perspectives as a pivotal way to generate knowledge and transform systems. The intrinsic engineering orientation to action and transformation as its ultimate goals for improving a system, for meeting needs, for addressing successfully a specific problematic situation that someone wants to improve, etc. are emphases that this book highlights. Such goals demand the recognition of specific engineering considerations and their implications for addressing social systems. We want to emphasize the complexity of engineering 'social' (human) systems (as opposed to engineering mechanical systems, electrical systems, etc.), since such systems are then in fact 'social' (formed by purposeful actors that display agency, with diverse, clashing interests and goals) and therefore their design, redesign and transformation, unlike in other engineering domains, cannot be completely determined or planned beforehand. These designs are formal and informal, emergent, always 'in progress', adapting and evolving out of diverse dynamics.

Social systems engineering has a paradoxical status. On the one hand, it is an under-researched topic whose theoria has rarely been explored. On the other hand, it is perhaps one of the most common endeavours in society since it concerns the praxis that seeks to design, create and transform human organizations. Consequently, we need to understand what engineering thinking means, and how it relates to social systems. Steven Goldman, one of the contributors to this book, stated more than 20 years ago regarding the autonomy of engineering (as distinct from other activities such as science or arts) that 'while engineering has a theoria, analogous to, but different from, that of the physical sciences, unlike science, engineering is quintessentially a praxis, a knowing inseparable from moral action' (Goldman, 1991, p. 139). The recognition of engineering as an autonomous activity, independent from science (though related in many ways), seems just a recent explicit realization that can be identified with what can be called a 'philosophy of engineering' (Bucciarelli, 2003; Goldman, 2004; Miller, 2009; Sinclair, 1977; Van de Poel and Goldberg, 2010). Perhaps the key word to understand the autonomy of engineering is design (Goldman, 1990; Layton, 1984, 1991; Pitt, 2011b; Schmidt, 2012; Van de Poel, 2010). Engineering, being driven by design, shows a distinct rationality, as Goldman shows in Chapter 1 of this book. He characterizes engineering design as 'compromised exactness', since its formal apparatus delivers approximate 'solutions' that are subject to their context of application, which means that they are always subjective, wilful and contextual. Social systems, as belonging to the realm of artificial systems, exhibit design, which means that they are, and can be, engineered, but not in the traditional sense (Remington et al., 2012; Simon, 1996). Traditional engineering, design-based methods, which essentially aim at control and prediction, cannot be applied to social systems due to the very nature of these systems - unlike mechanical systems, social systems do not 'obey laws', as Galileo imagined (Galileo Galilei, 1623), but are driven by the agency of human beings. Yet, engineering thinking can be used in several other ways, for instance for steering social systems towards a given direction, for influencing action (Pennock and Rouse, 2016), for opening new possibilities, for driving conversations among its members, for imagining different futures, for learning about the complexity that social systems entail, etc.

Whenever engineering concerns social systems (i.e., firms, public and private organizations, urban systems, etc.) it implies the design of social artefacts and social constructions such as management structures, incentive schemes, routines, procedures, ways of working (formal and informal, planned and spontaneous), agreements, contracts, policies, roles and discourses, among others (Jelinek et al., 2008; March and Vogus, 2010). Therefore, such types of engineering face a special type of complexity, since these artefacts depend on and are constructed through human action, meaning that not only individuals but also their emotions, language and meanings are involved.

This book seeks to offer an overview of what social systems engineering entails. The reader might hasten to think that this is a mechanistic approach to social systems. However, there is no such thing as optimal design in social systems (Devins et al., 2015). In contrast, the very idea of social systems engineering, although it emphasizes action, does not necessarily rely on prediction; it is context-dependent, iterative, builds upon different modelling perspectives and decisively aims at influencing the path of, rather than deliberatively designing, the evolving character of self-organization of human societies. This is a starkly different approach from a purely scientific viewpoint. The book encompasses three sections that follow an intuitive inquiry in this matter. The first section deals with the very idea of what social systems engineering might be and the need for addressing the topic in its own terms. The second section samples illustrative methodologies and methods. The final section illustrates examples of the challenge of designing the complexity that results from systems created through human action.

Epistemic Notions on the Engineering of Social Systems

There are diverse beliefs regarding what engineering is about. Perhaps the most popular is to believe that engineering is 'applied science'. However, this would mean assuming that 'scientists generate new knowledge which technologists then apply' (Layton, 1974, p. 31) and therefore would suggest that what makes an engineer an engineer, and what an engineer delivers, is (applied) scientific knowledge, instead of a different type of knowledge (Davis, 2010), which is, at best, misleading (Goldman, 2004; Hansson, 2007; Layton, 1974; McCarthy, 2010; Pitt, 2010; Van de Poel, 2010). The recognition that science and engineering stand on different epistemic grounds (Goldman, 1990; Koen, 2003; Krige, 2006; Layton, 1984, 1987, 1991; Petroski, 2010; Pitt, 2011b; Vincenti, 1990; Wise, 1985) is perhaps the first step in thinking of social systems engineering and requires a brief overview.

If it is not 'applied science', what are the defining characteristics of engineering? We can start by realizing that engineering and science usually pursue different goals: scientists, first and foremost, look for systematic explanations of phenomena; engineers, on the other hand, pursue the transformation of a situation through the design of artefacts that serve as vehicles to solve problems. In short, as Petroski (2010) puts it, scientists seek to explain the world while engineers try to change it. The scientist deals primarily with the question 'what is it?' The engineer deals with 'how must this situation be changed?' and 'what is the right action to do?' Engineering is concerned 'not with the necessary but with the contingent, not with how things are but with how they might be' (Simon, 1996, p. xii). Such different missions lead to different values, norms, rules, apparatus for reasoning, considerations, type of knowledge, methods, success criteria, standards for evaluating results; in short, different epistemologies.

Engineering knowledge is intrinsic to engineering and different from scientific knowledge. Engineering know-how is a distinctive type of knowledge, different from the scientific know-that (Ryle, 1945). For example, 'engineering knowledge is practice-generated. it is in the form of "knowledge-how" to accomplish something, rather than "knowledge-that" the universe operates in a particular way' (Schmidt, 2012, p. 1162). Knowledge-how is not concerned with the truth or falsehood of statements, 'you cannot affirm or deny Mrs. Beeton's recipes' (Ryle, 1945, p. 12). Engineers know how to do things. It is a type of practical knowledge. Therefore, the resources and information to get the job done can be varied and diverse, in principle they are not rejected under any a-priori principle, 'resolving engineering problems regularly...

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