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Introduction to Civil Engineering Systems

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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 .