In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Complex Unifiable Systems
December 15, 2020 Volume 50 Issue 4
The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility.

Editors' Note: Systemic Vistas

Friday, December 18, 2020

Author: Guru Madhavan, George Poste, William Rouse

We live in fragmented worlds. Unbridged, tattered seams abound.

The collision of four calamities—viral, racial, economic, and environmental—infected by human habits, hubris, and behavior as well as big tech, big media, and political acrimony are living examples. Calls for freedoms are posed against lockdowns. Scrolling timelines on social media stir the public distrust of information and institutions.

The result is a “cosmology episode.” Meanings and capabilities quickly vanish. Confusions reign. But “there’s no disaster that can’t become a blessing,” novelist Richard Bach (1988) wrote, “and no blessing that can’t become a disaster.” In the porous borders between disasters and blessings lies the story of engineering and human capacity.

Complex Disaster Scenarios

The following complex disaster scenarios are each far beyond a technofix.

Rising sea levels are threatening Route 1 through the Florida Keys. The costs of raising the roads will amount to $500,000 per resident, an amount the State of Florida cannot afford.

Prospective owners of coastal homes in the United States will no longer be able to get 30-year mortgages as financiers can no longer predict long-term risks. Current owners will no longer be able to afford increasingly expensive flood insurance.

Extreme heat has started to melt roads in states experiencing record high temperatures. Applying an additional rubberized layer to roads helps, but the higher road levels result in trucks not being able to go under many bridges.

Temperature rise has caused warmwater fish to migrate to Northeast waters in the United States, and cold-water fish to move farther north. New England fishers are catching foreign fish and no one in their markets has ordered them.

Recent analyses of temperature trends suggest that Americans under age 35 will live through a time when large parts of the Southeast and Southwest United States may be uninhabitable. Absent any mitigation, large migrations north will include more than fish. It’ll be millions of climate refugees.

These are just some ignored indicators of creeping impacts of climate complexities. There will never be a vaccine for sea level rise. Moreover, the titanic US medical system is accelerating toward the illness icebergs of cancers, Alzheimer’s, mental disease, and substance use disorders.

The overarching issue on these matters is not whether the science is right. What’s more compelling is how to responsibly engineer countermeasures for these foreseeable complex system dynamics and their impacts now and into the future. It’s wise to follow science, perhaps more important to lead with engineering.

A Cultural Engineering Mindset

Engineering as traditionally practiced, in isolation, is limited and limiting. Engineers are touted as “problem solvers” while the opposite is also true: we are problem creators. This is not a simple identity crisis; it’s an identification crisis. Engineers need to be able to identify what qualifies as a solution, and what’s acceptable in what contexts.

What needs to be done? This issue of The Bridge aims to prompt that conversation.

Humans have studied complex systems for a century. But we have engineered complex societies for tens of thousands of years. Yet much needs to be done to drive the culturewide appreciation and application of engineering.

In some ways engineering has led to safer complex systems, and such accomplishments have been multiplied across industry sectors. But engineering has also shied away from—and even exacerbated—issues connecting culture, environment, and justice. What then constitutes engineering design to promote the collective good? Such questions of complex systems are generally overlooked in engineering practice, scholarship, and education, as well as national priorities. Such questions are also bound to define the kinds of competencies, capabilities, and character needed to cultivate a cultural engineering mindset.

Explorations of Complexity and Unifiability

The articles in this issue are a first step toward exploring the notion of unifiability, not merely as an engineering ethos but also as a broader cultural responsibility. We consider unifiability as the leveraging of approaches and capabilities from different practices and paths of inquiry to foster functional systems engineering for complex problems. Unifiability involves crossing boundaries, as well as leadership, strategy, communications, and accountability.

Engineering to foster unifiability in a fragmented world will necessarily depart from standard technical comforts and technocratic conveniences. Such a practice will lead to reflective conversations on and responsible explorations of approaches to better understand and engage with complex systems. Not all of the ideas in these articles explicitly discuss unifiability, but they imply it, inspire it, or even practice it. Each essay honors and is humbled by complexity.

The essays fall into four clusters: the many approaches or modes to consider complexity, and the implications of approaches on culture, health, and organizations. Each short take on complexity is a reminder of the need for certain practices to promote unifiability. Call them the “seven habits of highly effective systems thinkers.”

  1. Specialize less, systematize more. Working across divisions and abstractions can inform and guide better concepts, principles, models, methods, and tools. On matters of complexity, engineers need to confront the true value of various specializations, how far they can take us, and how they are rewarded.
  2. Get over physics envy, try ecology envy. Less Newton, more Darwin. Engineering achievements and ruins both hinge on reductionism fueled largely by physics. It’s time to refocus on deep lessons from nature and culture and all their evolutions.
  3. Evolve logic and psychologic. Engineering training and algorithms encourage context blindness. Being sensitive to environments will require exercising intellectual senses as well as prudent forms of engineering.
  4. Foster discipline over disciplines. Complex systems can change faster than the mind can conceive them, and “solutions” can trigger undesirable outcomes. Staying attentive to failure modes requires discipline.
  5. Relate first, rationalize next. Complexity builds from relationships. Relating to one another is a civic act and engineering should be too. Rationality works only part time—and it’s often hard to tell which part.
  6. Progress comes from participation. Engineers often feel conflicted about being “hired guns” or “order takers.” Active reflection becomes a challenge. Broadening participation across populations may alleviate this discomfort. If there are no sacrifices, one might say, there’s no engineering. Similarly, if there’s no public participation, there’s no progress.
  7. Focus more on care than creation. Capitalism is fueled by newness and novelty, or so the belief goes. But maintenance and care are sources of essential wisdom and traditions. Vital systems that support people need more care than reckless new creations.

First Steps

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Walt Whitman reflected on the needs for an American character and spirit. In Democratic Vistas, he wrote that while there are accomplishments “established and complete, really the grandest things always remain; and discover that the work of the New World is not ended, but only fairly begun.”

On matters of complex unifiable systems, engineering has only fairly begun. The ideas in this issue represent a first step and a first draft.


Bach R. 1988. One. New York: Dell.

About the Author:Guru Madhavan is the Norman R. Augustine Senior Scholar and senior director of programs at the National Academy of Engineering. George Poste is Regents Professor and Del E. Webb Professor of Health Innovation and chief scientist with the Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative at Arizona State University. William Rouse (NAE) is research professor and senior fellow at McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.