Cite as:

Ali Minai, Dan Braha, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Complex engineered systems: A new paradigm, in Complex Engineered Systems, Dan Braha, Ali Minai, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Eds. (Springer, Berlin, 2006).


Human history is often seen as an inexorable march towards greater complexity — in ideas, artifacts, social, political and economic systems, technology, and in the structure of life itself. While we do not have detailed knowledge of ancient times, it is reasonable to conclude that the average resident of New York City today faces a world of much greater complexity than the average denizen of Carthage or Tikal. A careful consideration of this change, however, suggests that most of it has occurred recently, and has been driven primarily by the emergence of technology as a force in human life. In the 4000 years separating the Indus Valley Civilization from 18th century Europe, human transportation evolved from the bullock cart to the hansom, and the methods of communication used by George Washington did not differ significantly from those used by Alexander or Rameses. The world has moved radically towards greater complexity in the last two centuries. We have moved from buggies and letter couriers to airplanes and the Internet — an increase in capacity, and through its diversity also in complexity, orders of magnitude greater than that accumulated through the rest of human history. In addition to creating iconic artifacts — the airplane, the car, the computer, the television, etc. — this change has had a profound effect on the scope of experience by creating massive, connected and multiultra- level systems — traffic networks, power grids, markets, multinational corporations — that defy analytical understanding and seem to have a life of their own. This is where complexity truly enters our lives.