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ESD event addresses 'messy complexity'

More than 300 academics, industry and government representatives, and students gathered to discuss the history, necessity and potential for the emerging field of engineering systems at a symposium at MIT on March 29-31.

"This symposium is a remarkable, perhaps historic, event of great import to engineering education and to our institution," said President Charles M. Vest in the opening session. "If we are to continue to be a great engineering school and address complex problems in ways that benefit humankind, we will need to be great in engineering systems."

The Engineering Systems Symposium was organized by the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) and sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Cambridge-MIT Institute, the Industrial Liaison Program and the School of Engineering.

Thomas Hughes, a visiting professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society, compared the "elegant simplicity" of early engineering with the "messy complexity" of modern large-scale systems. David Mindell, the Dibner Associate Professor of History of Manufacturing and Technology, discussed the development of engineering science as a discipline by Vannevar Bush and others at MIT.

Mindell also showed how a broad systems approach--one that embraced the sociopolitical context in which technological innovations were occurring--was necessary for addressing complex problems in areas such as business, politics, science and technology. He used examples from operations research, oil production, the Viet Nam War and the Columbia shuttle tragedy to illustrate his point.

"Today's engineers need to understand the multidimensional complexity of the context in which technological innovations occur. Often this leads to unanticipated emergent properties. Engineers must learn to anticipate them and to deal with the long-term implications," said Associate Dean of Engineering Systems Daniel Roos.

More than 20 of the top engineering schools in the United States and Europe have agreed to collaborate in developing the field of engineering systems by sharing educational materials and information on job opportunities for Ph.D.s in engineering systems, and by holding interuniversity student colloquia, Roos announced at the symposium.

Panels and presentations by industry, government and academic leaders provided examples of engineering systems in their arenas. All stressed the importance of a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach. Other MIT speakers at the ESD symposium included: Institute Professor Sheila Widnall, a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, who described the technical causes of the shuttle disaster and the long-standing organizational and managerial context which allowed the tragedy to occur. Frederick Salvucci, senior lecturer in the Center for Transportation and Logistics, who shared lessons learned from the political and economic issues and their interplay with the engineering challenges of the Big Dig and the Boston Harbor cleanup. ESD co-director Daniel Hastings, who advocated developing a new generation of engineering leaders through a focus on engineering systems.

Papers describing the history, foundations and significant aspects of engineering systems have been collected and published as an online monograph by ESD faculty and staff. They can be found at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 7, 2004.

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