Let us return to engineering design, and to an analysis of its gradual development
towards a model more like architectural design, as we identified it in the opening
section of this introduction. In the 20th century the institutionalization of a rich
variety of engineering design traditions and practices emerged. During the second
half of the last century design practices gradually developed that focus on the material
product of design and on the broader social system in which these products are
supposed to perform their function.
For example, with the advent of ergonomics,
and the wide dissemination of computers, engineers became systematically
involved in problems related to man-machine interactions and in designing human
interfaces for their products. But the broadening of the boundaries of the systems
that engineers had to deal with did not stop with the inclusion of human agents.
Also, with regard to the life-cycle of designed objects, the boundary between products
and users has been shifting. Calls for a more environmentally sustainable society,
for example, has forced architects and engineers to consider products as items with
life cycles that include their production and their disassemble. More recently, with
the growing awareness of the vulnerability of large infrastructural systems to
cascading failures and terrorist attacks, engineers have further enlarged their professional
scope, to include in the systems they study and design, the interaction and
social organization of human agents that operate massive technological products.
This trend in different engineering fields has led to the emergence of systems engineering
as a separate branch of engineering.
Originally this new field of engineering
focused on the design of complex, large technological systems, and on the organization
of technologically complex production processes, including complex design processes.
Nowadays there is a growing awareness in this field that systems engineering
will have to include human agents and social infrastructures as elements of the
As we pointed out at the start, design traditions have emerged that focus their attention
on technological systems and what are called, by science, technology, and society
scholars (STS), and philosophers of technology, socio-technical systems: amalgams of
technological objects, agents, and social objects, all of which are necessary to guarantee
the functioning of these systems. The crucial role of social infrastructures for the
functioning of socio-technical systems may, for example, be illustrated by what happened
to civic air transportation in 2001 just after the 9/11 attack on the New York City World
Trade Center. The system of civic air transportation temporarily collapsed in part
because an element of its social infrastructure, the insurance of airplanes, stopped
functioning. The material infrastructure of this socio-technical system remained in
place but this was not sufficient to let it work successfully.
These developments in engineering can be characterized as ones in which the
boundaries of the systems designed are no longer drawn solely around individual
material products. Engineers must now enlarge their scope by recognizing wider
boundaries, including human agents, their behavior, and ultimately their social
institutions. As a result, engineers, like architects, are beginning to recognize their
responsibility for the design of both material artifacts and the behavior of the agents
interacting with those artifacts.
The notion of systems boundaries can also be used to capture an inverse development
within architecture. What architects refer to as “building science” has
transformed architectural practice in dramatic ways. New digital production
techniques and new materials make possible architectural designs that could only
be dreamt of a few years ago. In a way, architecture has narrowed its systems
boundaries through a new emphasis upon building performance and the physical
sciences. This is a development that brings parts of the architectural world much
closer to engineering design. Here, as in traditional engineering design, design
problems are approached primarily in a reductive, and not in an expansive way.
The turn by engineers from reductive to expansive design considerations produces
a design practice which is more likely to resemble the moral and social consequences
of architectural practices. Engineers working on socio-technical systems,
like the architects of the working class’ houses with their small kitchens, are in the
business of consciously shaping the way people behave. This shaping of human
behavior not only takes place with regard to man-machine interaction but, as argued
above, social infrastructure. As molders of human behavior and interaction, engineers
will have to think about the normative aspects of their choices on such structures.
There they will encounter ethical and political dilemmas that are inherent in any
consideration of human behavior. Moreover, the design of the material hardware
and social infrastructure of a socio-technical system cannot be easily disentangled.
The way in which the material products are technically designed produces constraints
on the behavior of individual users and also requires the enactment of social institutions,
such as building codes, regulations, and laws, to ensure that the system will function
Engineering then becomes a deeply ethical and political practice.
Many design disciplines, other than systems engineering, must now recognize
that design always has such social consequences, whether we choose to acknowledge
them or not, and that these social consequences affect the success or failure of
projects. The call to achieve environmental sustainability provides an illustrative
example. Environmental degradation, most analysts now recognize, is as much a
social problem as it is a technological one. The heating and cooling of urban buildings,
which is linked to the “urban heat island effect,” and rates of fossil fuel consumption,
are just two considerations. In the United States almost every building has its own
heating and air-conditioning system. In contrast, many European cities have municipally
owned “district” heating and cooling systems that significantly reduce emissions
and improve fuel efficiency. The reasoning that lead to the production of such
different systems are based, not upon engineering criteria as such, but on different
traditions in different countries regarding property rights and the appropriate
domain of public services. If the objective of technological development in this
example is to successfully solve environmental problems, then designers must learn
to think in new ways. In the design of socio-technical systems for environmental
sustainability engineers must move, as in architectural practice, toward an expansive
understanding of design problems.
However, because of that move, engineers
will have to confront the larger climate of social responsibility in which their design
solutions will be developed and implemented. Some design solutions will be at
odds with the broader social climate, and engineers like many architects today,
become de facto social critics representing a substantial expansion of their professional
- Firefly Design Group Announces Launch of “Pre-Engineering” Department (prweb.com)
- New Technical Sciences Social Network Launched (prweb.com)
- Architecture Course Builds Environmental Perspective (academyart.edu)
- The Systems Engineer: Unsung Hero of Product & Systems Development? (ibm.com)
- Data Engineering (hilarymason.com)
- How the Frank Lloyd Wright Architectural Philosophy is Displayed in Arizona Home (local.answers.com)
- Scaling up Systems to Make Cities More Sustainable (dirt.asla.org)