What is a system in the engineering sense?

One of the main tasks of a system analyst is the formalization and description of certain concepts. And now, having worked as a system analyst for 5 years and meeting with the word system dozens of times a day, I caught myself thinking that I could not define what a system is and perhaps I don’t even understand what a system really is. At the appearance of this simple thought, a slight indignation immediately arose. Well, here we are developing a system, this is the system, isn’t it? So everything we develop is a system? But we can design anything! So, I decided to do a little research and find a suitable definition of the concept of a system, or formulate my own from the point of view of engineering disciplines and systems analysis. If you look at Wikipedia, you can see the following there.

System (ancient Greek σύστημα “a whole made up of parts; connection”) – a set of elements that are in relationships and connections with each other, which forms a certain integrity, unity.

Almost everything falls under this definition. For example, a pencil can be considered a system, because it consists of many elements: a wooden case, a graphite rod, an eraser and its attachment. Or a more complex system, such as a person, consisting of many organs and body parts. In fact, it turns out that the word system is used everywhere and in a variety of areas and with a variety of meanings. A system can mean a classification, a method, a theory, a set of any objects, a pattern, etc. Further, we will consider the definition of the word system only from the point of view of engineering disciplines.

Within the framework of the MIPT course “Methods and tools of system design” Kondratiev V.V. the following definition of the system is given.

Within the framework of this definition, the system is considered not simply as a set of elements. In addition to the elements themselves, the system includes a process, through which the specified goal of the system is achieved. In other words, for example, a washing machine that is in a garage is not a system, because it does not carry out the process of washing clothes and, in fact, in this context is just scrap metal. A similar definition of the system only with respect to the program is given within the framework of the course “Systems Thinking” by A. I. Levenchuk.

It follows from the definition that a program is a system only when it fulfills its purpose and actually works. For example, the program code that lies in the repository is not a program, but a description of the program, and such a description, in turn, cannot be a system or part of a system. As part of the course of lectures “Business and System Analysis for Architects” by Dmitry Bezugly, a more academic definition of the concept of a system by Academician V. A. Anokhin is given.

This definition emphasizes that not all elements get into the system, but only those that we consciously place there and which, in turn, have an impact on the system-forming factor. For example, if we take “play tennis” as the expected result, then the mobile phone that we have in our pocket when playing tennis will not be part of the infrastructure (system) for playing tennis, unlike a tennis racket.

So, it turns out that an engineering system can be called something that meets the following criteria:

  • Consists of many elements.

  • It has the property of emergence (the presence of properties in the system that are not inherent in its individual elements).

  • It is a man-made object.

  • Exists in 4D space (the physical world).

  • Includes a process that ensures the achievement of a specific goal.

Let’s reformulate the definition.

System is a set of physical elements that have the property of emergence and are involved in a common process that ensures the achievement of a systemically forming goal.

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