Loughborough University
Leicestershire, UK
LE11 3TU
+44 (0)1509 263171


Development of technology has transformed human life across a number of sectors, the associated engineering systems have grown in terms of their complexity and interconnectivity to the point that their description, analysis and understanding are very challenging. 

The description, understanding and analysis of complex systems present several difficulties that are normally explored with the aid of system engineering science, tools, and techniques, however, a simple process to apply them does not exist and challenging situations keep reappearing.   Large complex systems can have a degree of similarity with each other, mainly in regards to their behaviour, independence and adaptability, but also in respect to the challenges they present.  Some of the challenges can be common across several different disciplines and accordingly their identification has the potential to aid in the description, analysis and understanding of large complex systems.

Systems engineering tools such as linear dynamics, statistical physics and network theory can be used to increase our understanding of complex systems and eventually to predict their behaviour including the potential conflicts that originate during their development. However, in the application of Systems Engineering many issues appear due to the size, scale and complexity of the systems.   Can systems engineering tools be applied directly? What are the grand challenges that need to be solved in order to take a systems engineering approach? Answers to these questions constitute a first step towards a greater understanding of the challenges of the world and our ability to prepare for the future.

What are Grand Challenges

Research Grand Challenges

A Research Grand Challenge pursues goals that are recognized as being one or two decades in advance. Their achievements are regarded as major milestones or breakthroughs in the advancement of knowledge or technology.

It is the Scale of the Vision that Makes it Challenging

To be regarded as a Grand Challenge each goal will require typically a decade of concentrated research effort in order to make significant progress or achieve a substantive breakthrough

Take inspiration from part of John F. Kennedy’s September 12th 1962 speech …

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills …”

To be regarded as a real Grand Challenge the relevant community must endorse the challenge

This does not guarantee success but the challenge serves to focus research effort towards a shared understanding of where the breakthroughs are required.
An advantage of this approach is that it is vitally important for the SE community to define the long-term aims of the SE discipline, independently from the short-term pull and technology push.

Origins of Grand Challenges

More than 100 years ago the mathematician David Hilbert first proposed a list of Grand Challenges in relation to human health. Since then diverse activists and thinkers around the world have discussed and tried to solve many global issues in particular those that affect third world countries.

In our present globalised societies the realities of the big problems in the world has become more visible. The public awareness of the negative impact of the world problems has increased as information is shared through all forms of communication.  General wisdom indicates that we will have to face up to old and new emergent problems as we face energy crisis, world overpopulation and severe climate change.

Grand challenges are understood as key drivers for the 21st century and include global issues such as global health, sustainable agriculture, access to clean water, energy availability and in general the world’s most pressing issues that must be overcome for benefit of human kind. 

The good news is that people around the world have started to take action; several hubs of activity have emerged at diverse social structures directing research towards finding solutions to the global grand challenges.

However, tackling the grand challenges is not straightforward due to their interdisciplinary nature. Also, technology alone is unlikely to provide the solution. Instead the solutions are likely to involve integration of people, processes, technology and business drivers. This is where systems engineering has a role to play. The application of systems methodologies, tools and environments are the key tools to address not only the grand challenges of the world, but also the challenges placed by the changing manufacturing and service industry in UK.