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Systems engineering: Challenging complexity
Systems engineering: Challenging complexity

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4 What is systems engineering? The career of a concept

4.1 Beginnings

Systems engineering has its roots in three linked strands of thinking: the concepts of systems science, engineering and public policy problem resolution. The first of these can be traced back to the work of von Bertalanffy (1968, pp. 8–15, 96–98) and others during the 1920s and 1930s but received a significant impetus when, in 1954, the Society for General Systems Theory was established at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The society later changed its name to the Society for General Systems Research and launched an ambitious programme:

The Society for General Systems Research was organized in 1954 to further the development of theoretical systems which are applicable to more than one of the traditional departments of knowledge. Major functions are to: (1) investigate the isomorphy of concepts, laws and models in various fields, and to help in useful transfers from one field to another; (2) encourage the development of adequate theoretical models in the fields which lack them; (3) minimize the duplication of theoretical effort in different fields; (4) promote the unity of science through improving communication among specialists.

(von Bertalanffy 1968, p. 13)

As this quotation suggests, the perspective of the Society for General Systems Research was scientific, but in parallel the use of systems as a technology for problem solving was developing rapidly.

In the 1930s the American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey proposed that there should be five phases or aspects of what he termed ‘reflective thought’:

  • suggestions – in which the mind leaps forward to possible solutions

  • an intellectualisation of the difficulty or perplexity that has been felt, into a problem to be solved

  • an evaluation of the suggestions in turn as a leading idea or hypothesis, to guide observation and the collection of factual material

  • elaborating the ideas through the application of reasoning

  • testing the hypothesis by overt or imaginative action.

The five phases of Dewey's reflective thought (Dewey, 1933) exhibit the characteristics of systems methodologies. The focus is on a problem that needs to be addressed. The approach involves investigation and data gathering to test the efficacy of different possible solutions. Dewey's approach contains the two key elements of systems engineering: the advocacy of a method of enquiry and action, and the application of the method to the solution of real-world problems.