Research & Innovation

Examining the Human Influence on our World From a Systems Perspective

Human influence is changing our world more and more every year. Climate change is perhaps the most prescient example, but it hardly ends there. From obvious physical changes such as air and water quality to socioeconomic conditions such as food insecurity and biodiversity, human behavior is exacting a toll everywhere you look. It is a complex web of connected systems constantly interacting with each other. Unfortunately, academic research has largely been siloed among individual disciplines while potential mitigation and solutions might lie in a systems-based approach to the problem.

The good news is that this is about to change, with Stevens professor Amro Farid playing a vital role. Farid, the Alexander Crombie Humphreys Chair Professor in Economics of Engineering in Stevens' School of Systems and Enterprises, is codirecting a $3.6 million project that was recently awarded by the National Science Foundation. Working with codirector John Little, the Charles E. Via Jr. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech, Farid will work in the Chesapeake Watershed region to examine the convergence of multiple societal challenges. The research team is also led by professors Claire Welty at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Patrick Bitterman at the University of Nebraska and D.G. Webster at Dartmouth College.

In technical terms, the Convergent Anthropocene Systems (Anthems) team will develop a systems-of-systems (SoS) convergence paradigm to integratively address a suite of interdependent societal challenges of the Anthropocene, including eutrophication, food and agriculture, and economic growth.

In layman's terms, it means a diverse team of engineers is going to put their heads together and study the Anthropocene – the period during which human activity has become the dominant influence in climate and the environment – challenges of today in a systematic manner. More importantly, the methodology by which they do so has the potential to be generalizable to a whole of host of other societal changes, including climate change, severe weather disasters, pandemics and biodiversity loss.

"All of these different societal challenges, whether it's climate change or pandemics, disasters or biodiversity, or the need for economic growth, decarbonization and education, they are all very much intertwined," said Farid. "We need to look at them simultaneously. And while that sounds hard on the surface, it's actually harder to examine each of them really well individually. They are all connected, so you might as well look at them simultaneously."

The Anthems collaboration is the brainchild and passion project of Farid and Little. It is also the result of a chance encounter. Professor Little had long been frustrated by rejected proposals to perform similar interdisciplinary systems-based research. So, two years ago, Little submitted a paper and drove to a conference organized by the Council of Systems Engineering Universities (CESUN) at the University of Virginia to do a presentation about evolutionary systems and the environmental challenges they have caused. Knowing no one at the conference, Little sat down after his presentation and was approached by Farid, who asked, "Have you ever heard of hetero-functional graph theory?" They clicked immediately, conversations intensified, and here we are now.

The Anthems project is a five-year plan divided into two parts, with the first comprising two years and funding for the second part contingent on the work done in the first two years. Part 1 will focus on developing the systems-of-systems (SoS) convergence paradigm. The team will develop, implement and validate its SoS convergence paradigm in close collaboration with the Chesapeake Bay Program (CBP), focusing on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed (CBW) region. They will integrate regional models of land use, watershed and economics using the SoS computational framework, engage with stakeholders to evaluate regional scenarios, and begin the development and evaluation of the SoS decision-support system.

The CBW is home to more than 17 million people and the CBP stakeholder community needs integrated modeling tools to examine synergies – e.g., nutrient reduction and flood risk mitigation – and tradeoffs such as nutrient reduction and fish productivity across multiple systems. Together, the CBW and the CBP provide a real-world testbed for the SoS convergence paradigm, enabling the team to bring together intellectually diverse researchers to address multiple interdependent societal challenges. Multiple disciplines, including environmental engineering, city and regional planning, civil engineering, geography, industrial and systems engineering, and public policy will be utilized in this phase.

"We feel like no one else is doing this," said Little. "Usually, the climate people are focused on climate. The economists look at the economic aspects, energy, transportation, the same thing. And that is a recipe for disaster. You have to look at these challenges in a systematic way. And that's what's exciting about the work we're going to be doing here. They're all going to be talking to each other."

Part 2 of the project will extend the SoS computational framework by including estuary and governance models, while zooming in to Baltimore at the urban scale. Phase 3, which will require follow-on center level funding, will scale up the SoS paradigm to a larger family of societal challenges, generalizing the approach to other regions and their associated urban areas.

For Farid, a successful project will manifest itself in multiple ways. He is hoping to create a concrete analytical ability to interpret the many systems-of-systems interactions in the Chesapeake Bay. But more importantly, he hopes to advance the scientific literature and knowledge associated with understanding systems of social-technical systems. Learning how to go about studying them in a systematic way can lead to a highly valuable contribution that will benefit similar types of projects in the future, and ultimately provide a blueprint for future educators and researchers.

Systems engineering is often correlated with complex physical systems such as aviation, communications and defense, for instance. Systems engineers by their nature tackle complicated and frankly intimidating problems. Therefore, it stands to reason that a systems-based approach will provide ample value to the myriad of issues humanity faces today.

"We believe strongly in the role of systems engineering in addressing these Anthropocene challenges," said Farid. "That means we have to be looking outward to colleagues in other disciplines and sharing with them how we have addressed convergence and multidisciplinary research in our field before."

The work being done by the Anthems team is an important step in understanding, mitigating and solving these problems to the great benefit of all of us.