Engineering complexity beyond the surface: discerning the viewpoints, the drivers, and the challenges

Gisela Anaid Garza Morales*, Kostas Nizamis, G.Maarten Bonnema

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
116 Downloads (Pure)


Complexity is often regarded as a “problem” to solve. Instead of attempting to solve complexity, we follow systems engineering practices and switch back to the problem domain, where a major obstacle is the impossibility to universally define complexity. As a workaround, we explored complexity characterization and its existing shortcomings, including: lack of standardization, inconsistent semantics, system-centricity, insufficiently transparent reasoning, and lack of validation. To address these shortcomings, we proposed a compilatory framework to characterize complexity using the Five Ws information-gathering method. The answer to the WHO question proposed four complexity viewpoints; the answer to the WHY question proposed a two-dimensional structure for complexity drivers; and the answer to the WHAT question derived generalized complexity challenges. As a preliminary step to show the potential of the framework to characterize complexity, we used and validated it as a tool to structure general literature related to complexity. In general, our findings suggest that papers with complexity solutions do not frame their research within the complexity problem domain, hindering the contribution evaluation. Through the viewpoints, we identified general research gaps of six solution directions. From the drivers, we noted three observations in the discourse of complexity origins: (1) a system-driven tendency, (2) a preference for concreteness vs. abstraction, and (3) an unclear distinction between origins and effects. Through the challenges’ findings we explored two hypotheses: (1) a system-centric preference; and (2) a solution-oriented vision, both of which were supported by the results (most challenges relate to the system viewpoint and challenges are defined based on solution directions).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)367-400
Number of pages34
JournalResearch in engineering design
Issue number3
Early online date13 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023


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