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The Wicked Future of Systems Engineering

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1 The Wicked Future of Systems Engineering
December 6, 2006 Curtis Johnson, Advanced Concepts Group and Dr. Gerold Yonas, PhD Vice President and Principal Scientist Sandia National Laboratories SAND Number: P Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin Company, for the United States Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration under contract DE-AC04-94AL85000.

2 Important Future Problems Are Wicked (i.e., Inherently Sociotechnical)
Homeland Security Infrastructures Resilience Climate Change “Peaking” Oil The “Long War” Sustainable Cities Accelerated and Enhanced Education Development in the Third World Affordable Health Maintenance of an Aging Society Transitioning to Democracy and Beyond Biological and Genetic Threats and Opportunities

3 Wicked Problem Characteristics
Causes and Effects are Elusive Non-Linear Many interdependent variables (feedback loops) Delays and Distances No Definitive Description or Optimal State Multi-Minded Systems Adapt Individuals Optimize Locally Sensitive to Initial Conditions (History) Let’s explore these four characteristics of complex systems in more depth. We’ll use traffic in a city as an example of a complex system.

4 Causes and Effects are Elusive
It’s not just cars that cause traffic Locations of homes, workplaces, stores and attractions Cost of travel Hours and times of work Weather, car accidents and construction New roads cause growth, which causes traffic Alleviation of traffic shortens the time required for trips, which leads people to take more trips and causes traffic . In complex systems, you might THINK you know the causes and effects. We usually think we do, at least at first. Traffic is caused by the number of cars on the road. Traffic is alleviated by getting cars off the road or adding capacity to the roads. A single cause having a single, immediate, direct effect is the easiest to see, such as a hammer hitting a nail. When there are multiple causes, when causes affect each other, when effects are delayed or disproportional, we often make mistakes in assigning causes. It took a long time to discover that mosquitoes and calm pools of water are leading causes of malaria and yellow fever, because the causal chain is not direct, immediate, and proportionate First, causes and effects are often not proportional in complex systems. This is all we mean by “non-linear.” Adding one lane to a three lane road does not necessarily increase capacity by 1/3. Sometimes adding lanes to a highway causes more lane-switching and actually slows traffic. Raising the speed limit might speed up traffic, or it might slow it down with accidents. Small causes can have big effects, for example a police car stopping people for speeding, a single accident, or one new employer in the region. Second, variables are interdependent. For instance new roads often stimulate growth, creating more traffic. Reducing traffic attracts even more people to the region and makes it convenient to live further from the city center, creating more traffic. Third, causes can have delayed or distant effects, making it hard to make the connection. It takes awhile for a new road to create growth. It takes a very long time for internet connectivity to reduce traffic by encouraging telecommuting.

5 Wicked Problems Have No Definitive Description or Optimal State
Traffic is: A quality-of-life problem An environmental problem A safety problem A transportation problem A symptom of urbanization A productivity (economic) problem A symptom of poor mass transit systems A symptom of poor acceptance and implementation of telecommuting Each of these is a different way to frame the problem of traffic. None of these frames can be proven to be more right or wrong than the others. And each frame would define the elements of the system differently. If we approach the problem as a transportation problem, we would look for the fastest and most efficient way to move people and goods from where they are to where they need to be. We would probably accept the locations of houses and factories and workplaces as fixed. In an environmental frame, we would model pollution. In a productivity model, we would be concerned with time lost from work. If we thought of traffic as a symptom that telecommuting isn’t being adopted, we wouldn’t try to fix traffic at all; we’d go to work on telecommuting and think of traffic as an outcome. These different frames are in tension or competition. If we “solve” for one of these frames, we will create new problems. For instance telecommuting could damage the social fiber of our city and would hurt the restaurants and clothing retailers in the city. It could also create traffic jams on the internet. We could solve traffic as an environmental problem and damage productivity and the quality of life.

6 Wicked Problems Involve Multi-Minded Systems
Each person and each driver will adapt to changes and optimize locally, changing: Routes Jobs Homes Transportation modes Habits AND PERCEPTIONS AND VALUES If you think of traffic as a problem of cars and roads and needs to get people and things from here to there, you will miss one of the most important aspects of the system—it is multi-minded. No one in the system is trying to make the whole system good. Each person in the system is optimizing for themselves or maybe for themselves and their immediate neighbors. People are always trying to beat the system. And there are more of them thinking of ways around the system than there are people trying to maintain and control the system. And worse, people adapt and change. People in Los Angeles think that a one-hour commute is short. People in smaller towns think it is endless. When houses get cheaper further away, the commute doesn’t look so bad. When iPods and XM radio and cell phones make the commute more pleasant or productive, they are willing to drive even further. In the US, cars have a lot to do with personal images and people love the freedom to go where they want when they want with whom they want. In other places people may just want cheap transportation (and cell phones might have everything to do with image). If you are trying to control a system, multimindedness creates huge problems. On the other hand, multimindedness is also a very good thing. We don’t yet have computer systems that could run the traffic of a city nearly as well as all of the brains in the cars do today. One should try to influence multimindedness and leverage their brains, adaptability and self-interest. A bureaucratic hierarchy tries to be singleminded, while other forms of management and leadership try to leverage multimindedness.

7 Wicked Problems Are Sensitive to Initial Conditions
Values about transportation and cars Habitual routes Common speeds and rules of the road Where the houses and factories are now Where a single stalled vehicle is Etc. Complex systems are never the same twice. An intervention might improve conditions today and the same intervention might make things worse tomorrow. A successful outcome doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand the system or that you will be successful with the same strategy the next time. Some initial conditions can be known and defined and others are elusive. This makes rigorous scientific experimentation on complex systems pretty much impossible.

8 Tame problems have similar characteristics
Well-defined problem statement Definite stopping point Right or wrong solution Similar to others of same class Solutions easily tried and dropped Few alternate solutions Traditional wisdom for solving complex problems: the “waterfall” Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity

9 Linear solution approach to tame problems
Collect relevant information Analyze Formulate solution Decide to implement solution Implement solution Data/Info Collection Analysis Decision

10 Trying to tame a wicked problem can lead to:
Defining the problem very narrowly and only from a technical perspective Unconsciously eliminating many possible solutions Assuming people are all the same and are the same even under different conditions Failure to anticipate consequences Ignoring the changing nature of the problem, our part in the problem, and the others trying to solve the problem from their own frame. People taming wicked problems with different perspectives, backgrounds, organizations, and goals leads to escalating confusion, conflicts, and paralysis Pattern of cognitive activity of one wicked engineer: the “jagged” line Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity

11 Step One: Recognize Wickedness

12 Step Two: Accept Wickedness
Each problem at each moment is unique Every problem definition eliminates other valid definitions and limits the solution space You will never understand the whole system Studying and experimenting with the problem changes the problem Success changes the game (what works today will often not work tomorrow) You cannot control or stabilize the system You can anticipate outcomes but not predict them definitively

13 Step Three: Organize for Success
Create a diverse team, including different: Perspectives on the system and from within the system Professions, academic backgrounds, genders, races, ages, religions, thinking styles, etc. Create an environment where those many voices are welcome Identify several different formulations of the problem Deliberately put yourselves in “different shoes” Plan for continuous data collection, analysis, decision-making, and action. Organize to make rapid decisions, even with limited data, and to adapt to changes quickly

14 Step Four: Use a Rational Approach Based on the Scientific Method
Observe, gather data, and describe the problem Formulate an hypothesis Make a prediction (If Then . . .) Test the hypothesis Update description and hypothesis A scientific approach can’t take out the complexity. It can ensure that the actions you take are rational given your assumptions and knowledge. More importantly, it can ensure that you know what you don’t know, change your assumptions and problem definition when these are disproved, and that you learn as you go.

15 Step Five: Use Appropriate Tools
Red Teams Gaming Modeling and Simulation Agent-Based Models (simulates multi-mindedness) Systems Dynamics Models Dialogue Mapping Social Network Analysis Informatics and Correlation Analysis “Pinging” and Experiments

16 General Principles for Working Complex Problems
Continually gather information, revalidate assumptions, and consider alternate hypotheses Find ways to collect artificial or low-cost experience and test hypotheses Look for underlying structures, causes and motivations (an art, not a science) Always look at a problem from multiple frames Leverage the energy in the system; don’t oppose it Be ready to adapt even when you are successful Dynamic stability is more robust than controlled, or static, stability—a little chaos is good! Focus on the people more than the technology, the facts, or the stuff I will later describe assessing a complex contingency like waves – assess, decide, act, asses, decide act – the OODA loop made more translatable. . . This is a great foundation! Charlie

17 Implications for Engineering
Engineers can no longer ask for clear technical requirements and then “retreat” to their comfort zone. Engineers must be able to participate effectively in formulating the whole sociotechnical mess. A technical person should understand the whole problem and how much leverage is in technical means before suggesting more research or asking for a lot of money to create a technical fix. We must learn to engineer systems that are only triggers for social change and tools that are designed to evolve with use in unpredictable ways.

18 Benefits to Engineering of Going Wicked
Engineers will better understand their customers, communicate better with their customers, be more valued by their customers, and better see the big picture they are working on Engineering will appeal to a much more diverse set of people, including more entrepreneurial people, more socially oriented people, and likely more women. Engineering will be more valued by society Engineers will be more attractive to the opposite sex (just kidding)


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