As President Obama hailed MIT’s commitment to energy research during
his recent visit to campus, MIT’s System Design and Management Program
(SDM) was tackling a range of issues critical to the nation — not only
energy, but the environment and health care — at its annual "Systems
Thinking for Contemporary Challenges" conference.
"To address any of these issues, you have to take a systems
perspective," said Associate Professor Olivier de Weck, associate
director of the MIT Engineering Systems Division (home to SDM), which
is pioneering integrative methodologies to address these challenges.
"Everything is linked."
A "systems perspective" examines complex problems within a broader
context of intertwined technological, business and social issues.
Taking such a view is critical to solving complex problems, and the
work requires integrating approaches from engineering, management and
the social sciences, said de Weck.
More than 250 representatives from industry, nonprofit
organizations, and academia attended SDM’s conference, held Oct.
22-23 at the Broad Auditorium. The first day centered on
infrastructure, notably energy and the environment.
Sharon L. Nunes, IBM’s vice president of Big Green Innovations,
outlined the dire state of water management — both in the United States
(36 states expect availability problems in the coming decade) and the
world (about 40 percent of people already live in a water stressed
area) — and described how IBM is working to optimize usage and
incentivize conservation through water metering and monitoring.
Creating instrumentation for water systems — including their
interconnections, their links to other infrastructure, and
knowledge-sharing (often influenced by social and economic factors) — can
provide the data needed for intelligent management of the system, she
said. She added that good water management is critical to good health,
societal stability (as droughts can force migrations), and the economy.
The same is true of energy system management, said Lawrence Willey,
manager for Wind Systems Conceptual Design at GE Infrastructure. Like
water, energy is affected by political, economic, and societal
influences that cannot be addressed with technology alone.
GE Infrastructure is working to reach the goal of 20 percent
wind generation by 2030 in the United States, but cannot do so without facing multiple
systems issues, Willey said. It is particularly challenging to
integrate wind energy, which is intermittent and weather-dependent,
into the existing electrical grid, which must meet the peaks and
valleys of demand exactly, he said. Better storage options, improved
transmission, and a smarter electrical grid may all be needed to meet
needs effectively and efficiently — within a larger societal and business
Day two of the conference — which featured a live, lunchtime showing
of President Obama’s speech — focused on the "unbelievable systems
nightmare that is U.S. health care today," as Dr. Blackford Middleton
of Partners HealthCare System described it.
Middleton characterized our current system as an interconnected
network of dependencies — doctors send out labwork and bill insurers;
labs send results to doctors and bill patients; insurers pay doctors
and apprise patients of benefits; and so on. All of these interactions
generate information, yet much of the nation’s records are still on
paper — a notorious source of errors, said Middleton, who directs
clinical informatics research and development at Partners.
"We have a significant knowledge management problem," he said.
Middleton illustrated the benefits of improving the flow of
knowledge by relating his experience with the electronic medical
records system Partners built, which includes a database that helps
doctors make decisions about patient care. Partners worked to create a
solution that is not just technical, but takes into consideration the
needs of management (saving money and labor), doctors (making the
system easy to use), and patients (improving their experience), he said.
"It’s not a panacea," he admitted, but the system has made it easier
for doctors to do multiple tasks at point-of-care, and the
documentation has led to better compliance with protocols.
Joseph F. Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, emphasized the need
for entirely new ways of thinking about the health-care system, asking
the audience: As a consumer, do you want the existing system to be
better, or do you want a completely different system?
"If innovation is what’s needed, researchers as well as industry
leaders have to be willing to take trends seriously — because
expectations will change how we define, design, and deliver value," he
said. "Rarely, if ever, do you see innovation come from the industry
that is under the microscope needing change."
In the future we might get health-care services from private TV
channels, our cars, or workplace kiosks, he said. Given the character
of today’s aging Baby Boomers, Coughlin said he sees health care moving
toward personalized service and a more empowered consumer.
And if that sounds like some other industry — such as
telecommunications (iPhone) or transportation (GPS) — that’s not likely
to surprise systems thinkers. "The boundaries between these systems are
being blurred," de Weck said. "It’s an exciting time to be a systems
The conference was sponsored by SDM, John Deere, MITRE, United
Technologies Research Center, and BAE Systems. The 2010 MIT Conference
on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges is scheduled for
October 21–22 at MIT.
Presentations from the 2009 MIT Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges can be viewed at