In This Issue
Earth Systems Engineering
March 1, 2001 Volume 31 Issue 1

Earth Systems Engineering, Editorial

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Brad Allenby

The National Academy of Engineering’s annual meeting technical session last October was, as always, informative and entertaining. But it was also noteworthy, for it introduced a new adventure for engineers and the engineering professions: Earth systems engineering (ESE). ESE, as I define it, is the study and practice of engineering human technology systems in such a way as to provide the required functionality while facilitating the active management of the dynamics of strongly coupled fundamental natural systems.

The articles in this issue, based on presentations made at the technical session, begin to flesh out that definition. In the process, several themes that undoubtedly will characterize any ESE discourse can already be discerned: the need for the designer of technology systems, and society as a whole, to assume ethical responsibility for both artifact and systems effects; the role of technology as an absolutely critical element of social response to environmental perturbations; and the significance of complexity, not only of the technical systems, but also of the environmental, social, and cultural systems to which they are inevitably coupled.

Bugliarello provides an ESE vision of cities as places where technology, population, culture, economics, and natural systems intersect and interact. He calls for rethinking the city in terms of efficiency, manageability, and (especially emotional) quality of life. The approach requires not just the traditional engineering of projects within the city but learning how to engineer the city as an organic whole, along its three dimensions: biological, social, and machine.

The challenges that this poses to engineering-in scale, complexity, and multidisciplinarity-are apparent. Moreover, they will grow as the complexity and power of our technologies grow. What will be the impact on the city of biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology? At what scales will functionality, such as energy or water services, best be provided?

White discusses an issue on many people’s minds these days, climate change, but does so from an ESE perspective. He thus introduces what may be the first branch of ESE: climate systems engineering (CSE). The couplings between human systems and complex natural systems, including not just atmospheric dynamics, but also the carbon, hydrological, and oceanic systems as well, are both apparent and quite complex in this instance.

Moreover, the climate change issue is pervaded by engineering and technology, from the systems that generate greenhouse gases to the systems that enable us to perceive relevant changes in natural systems in the first place to the technologies that can mitigate such impacts. In this regard, the lack of a robust technology dimension to existing global climate change negotiations is both noteworthy and dysfunctional. It is to be hoped that this gap will be addressed in any continuing process intended to address global climate change.

What roles, for example, can biotechnology, information technology, and new energy technologies such as active carbon sequestration play in enabling development, especially in emerging countries, while at the same time reducing anthropogenic climate change forcing?

That this and related questions have not even been asked yet is a serious indictment of the existing process and probably reflects a profound lack of understanding of technological evolution on the part of many parties currently engaged in such negotiations. CSE clearly poses a profound challenge for engineering going forward, and an active role for the Academy in this area would be entirely appropriate.

Pradhan and Pradhan urge the redefinition of cities in an attempt to capture the benefits of both large and small scale, of the urban center and the village. Some may feel that reconceptualizing big cities as conglomerations of small towns can hinder, rather than support, efforts to address regional phenomenon. The existence of hundreds of political and jurisdictional units appears to significantly complicate efforts to deal with regional resource bases such as the Everglades, the Great Lakes, and the Baltic Sea, for example.

Few, however, will regard their call for rethinking boundaries between agricultural and urban activities, and rethinking scales of technologies (what, for example, is the optimum scale for recycling light plastics?), as unimportant. As they point out, beginning an ESE dialog by questioning accepted “opposing concepts” is a productive and necessary first step.

Humans will exist within complex systems, both social and natural, for as long as our species remains dominant on this planet. For this reason, earth systems engineering will challenge the ingenuity and test the responsibility of the engineering community for the foreseeable future. It is exciting, and humbling, to begin that voyage.

About the Author:Brad Allenby is environment, health and safety vice president at AT&T, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and the inaugural Batten Fellow at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia. The views expressed in this editorial are the author’s alone.