Sussman defined and examined the linked concepts of “critical contemporary issues” and “complex sociotechnical systems.” Critical contemporary issues encompass the most significant and pressing challenges we face today, including issues such as global climate change, energy/environment, the global economy, national security and mobility. These issues often involve technical systems and components, and also have great social, political and/or economic relevance.
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Sussman discussed some different types of complexity, explaining that the study of complex sociotechnical systems must also be applicable to the actual design of such systems.
“Those of us interested in complex sociotechnical systems are not just observers of the systems,” Sussman said, explaining that these systems are “purposeful.” Ultimately, it is not enough to consider whether a system is performing well, but it is more important to “consider what good performance actually means,” he added.
Sussman offered a real-world example of a major transportation project in Mexico City to show many interlinked challenges (such as mobility and productivity problems, environmental impacts on human health, and social equity issues), all existing within a complex institutional sphere.
Sussman suggested that a key aspect of the study of complex sociotechnical systems is to have core, underlying concepts for creating integrated approaches across domains — so that challenges are not just addressed individually and in isolation, but are addressed with a set of principles and tools that can be transferable to many different systems.