Introduction to Civil Engineering Systems

Introduction to Civil Engineering Systems

The civil engineering discipline involves the development of structural, hydraulic, geotechnical,
construction, environmental, transportation, architectural, and other civil systems that address societies’
infrastructure needs. The planning and design of these systems are well covered in traditional
courses and texts at most universities. In recent years, however, universities have increasingly
sought to infuse a “systems” perspective to their traditional civil engineering curricula. This development
arose out of the recognition that the developers of civil engineering systems need a solid set
of skills in other disciplines. These skills are needed to equip them further for their traditional tasks
at the design and construction phases and also to burnish their analytical skills for other less-obvious
or emerging tasks at all phases of system development.
The development of civil engineering systems over the centuries and millennia has been characterized
by continual improvements that were achieved mostly through series of trial-and-error as
systems were constructed and reconstructed by learning from past mistakes. At the current time,
the use of trial-and-error methods on real-life systems is infeasible because it may take not only
several decades but also involve excessive costs in resources and, possibly, human lives before the
best system can be finally realized. Also in the past, systems have been developed in ways that were
not always effective or cost-effective. For these and other reasons, the current era, which has inherited
the civil engineering systems built decades ago, poses a unique set of challenges for today’s
civil engineers. A large number of these systems, dams, bridges, roads, ports, and so on are functionally
obsolescent or are approaching the end of their design lives and are in need of expansion,
rehabilitation, or replacement. The issue of inadequate or aging civil infrastructure has deservedly
gained national attention due to a series of publicized engineering system failures in the United
States, such as the New Orleans levees, the Minnesota and Seattle interstate highway bridges, and
the New York and Dallas sewers, and in other countries. The current problem of aging infrastructure
is further exacerbated by increased demand and loading fueled by population growth, rising
user expectations of system performance, increased desire for stakeholder participation in decisionmaking
processes, terrorism threats, the looming specter of tort liability, and above all, inadequate
funding for sustained preservation and renewal of these systems.

As such, civil engineers of today need not only to develop skills in the traditional design areas
but also to continually seek and implement traditional and emerging tools in other related areas
such as operations research, economics, law, finance, statistics, and other areas. These efforts can
facilitate a more comprehensive yet holistic approach to problem solving at any phase of the civil
engineering system development cycle. This way, these systems can be constructed, maintained,
and operated in the most cost-effective way with minimal damage to the environment, maximum
system longevity, reduced exposure to torts, optimal use of the taxpayers’ dollar, and other benefits.
Unfortunately, at the current time, graduating engineers enter the workforce with few or no skills
in systems engineering and learn these skills informally only after several decades. With limited
skill in how to integrate specific knowledge from external disciplines into their work, practicing
engineers will be potentially handicapped unless their organizations provide formal training in the

concepts of sytems engineering. This text addresses these issues.

The first part of this text discusses the historical evolution of the various engineering disciplines
and general concepts of systems engineering. This includes formal definitions, systems classifications,
systems attributes, and general and specific examples of systems in everyday life and in civil
engineering. The part also identifies the phases of development of civil systems over their life cycle
and discusses the tasks faced by civil systems engineers at each phase. Most working engineers are
typically involved in only one or two of these phases, but it is important for all engineers to acquire
an overall bird’s eye view of all phases so that decisions they make at any phase are holistic and
within the context of the entire life cycle of their systems. The next two parts discuss the tasks that
civil engineers encounter at each phase and the tools they need to address these tasks. For example,
at the needs assessment phase, one possible task is to predict the level of expected usage of the system,
and the tool for this task could be statistical modeling or simulation. Certain tools are useful in
more than one phase. Given this background, Part IV provides a detailed discussion of each phase
of civil systems development and presents specific examples of tasks and tools used to address
questions at these phases. Part V presents topics that may seem peripheral but are critical to civil
systems development, such as legal issues, ethics, sustainability, and resilience, and discusses their
relevance at each phase.
Clearly, this text differs from other texts in the manner in which it presents the material. The
systems tasks and tools are presented not in a scattered fashion but rather in the organized context
of a phasal framework of system development. Why is it so important to view the entire life cycle of
civil engineering systems within a phasal framework? And why do we need to acquire those skills
that are needed for the tasks at each phase? One reason is the typically large expense involved in
the provision of such facilities. Every year, several trillion dollars are invested worldwide in civil
engineering systems, to build new facilities or to operate and maintain existing ones. The beneficial
impacts of these investments permeate every sphere of our lives including safety, mobility, security,
and the economy and thus need to be identified and measured systematically. Also, adverse
impacts such as environmental degradation, community disruption, and inequities are often evident
and need to be assessed and mitigated. In summation, given the large expanse and value of
civil engineering assets, the massive volume of national and state investments annually to build and
operate these systems, and the multiplicity of stakeholders, there is need for a comprehensive yet
integrated approach to the planning, design, implementation, operations, and preservation of these
systems. A second reason for advocating an organized systems approach is the nature of recent and
ongoing trends in the socioeconomic environment: at the current time of tight budgets, increasing
loadings and demand, aging infrastructure, global economic changes, and increased need for security
and safety, civil engineering systems are facing scrutiny more than ever before and the biggest
bang is now sought for every dollar spent on these systems. As such, civil system engineers are increasingly being called upon to render account of their fiduciary stewardship of the public infrastructure and assets. This is best done when the development of such systems is viewed within a phasal framework, when civil engineering system managers acquire the requisite tools needed to address the tasks at each phase, and when these managers provide evidence of organized planning for long-term life-cycle development of their systems.


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