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International Engineering Systems Symposium addresses complex, large-scale challenges

A capacity audience from academia, industry and government from around the world filled MIT's Wong Auditorium for the International Engineering Systems Symposium on Monday, June 15, the first day of the three-day event. The symposium is co-sponsored by MIT Engineering Systems Division (ESD) and the Council of Engineering Systems Universities (CESUN).

This is the second symposium of its kind at MIT, said Daniel Roos, the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Engineering Systems and Civil and Environmental Engineering, and director of the MIT Portugal Program. Roos, also chair of the CESUN executive committee and co-chair of the symposium, explained in his welcome remarks that while the first symposium, in 2004, aimed to develop the emerging field of engineering systems, the objective this time was to look at what has been accomplished and discuss the latest critical challenges and opportunities.

MIT President Susan Hockfield highlighted the significance of engineering systems research within the larger context of MIT, noting that while MIT has a state of mind of tackling problems, the Institute's Engineering Systems Division is known for "liking extraordinarily complex problems," including areas such as global supply chains, sustainable energy, transportation, logistics and health care delivery.

"While many areas [of MIT] deal with the small, ESD deals with problems of the very large - problems that will increasingly determine our future," Hockfield said.

MIT President Emeritus Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, discussed some of these problems in his keynote address titled, "Grand Challenges and Engineering Systems: Inspiring and Educating the Next Generation." Vest spoke of "the amazing disappearing word: 'engineer,'" citing a recent statistic that only 4.5 percent of United States university graduates have degrees in engineering, substantially lower than the percentage of students with engineering degrees in other parts of the world. Vest suggested that the low number of students pursuing engineering represents a need to reinvigorate engineering education and use large-scale challenges to capture the imagination and intellect of the next generation of engineering leaders - inspiring creative, holistic thinking.

Vest identified two "major frontiers" of research: the "micro" world of very tiny systems in fields such as biology and nanotechnology, and the "macro" world of "larger and larger, more and more complex systems of great societal importance."

"If more work is to be done at the large scale," said Vest, "we have to, in a very similar way [as in the small scale], merge engineering with social sciences."

The first day of the symposium also featured a number of other sessions, including a panel discussion addressing the key issues of financial services systems, health care, energy and complex organizational systems. Moderated by James Champy, author and chairman of consulting, Perot Systems, the panel featured John Reed, retired chairman, Citigroup, Inc.; Denis Cortese, CEO, Mayo Clinic; Steven Koonin, undersecretary for science, U.S. Department of Energy; and Irving Wladawsky-Berger, chairman emeritus, IBM Academy of Technology, and visiting lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and ESD. At a lunch keynote address, Thomas Peterson, the new assistant director of the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Engineering, spoke about the NSF's initiatives in the area of complex systems.

The symposium continued through Wednesday with additional panel discussions, a poster session, and approximately 50 accepted papers (presented in 12 concurrent sessions) covering topics such as energy policy, flexibility, design and risk analysis. Presentation slides, links to some of the sessions on MIT World, and other symposium-related content will be available on the symposium web site later in the summer. Visit

About the Engineering Systems Division

ESD aims to solve complex engineering systems problems by integrating approaches based on engineering, management, and social sciences - using new framing and modeling methodologies. ESD seeks to facilitate the beneficial application of engineering systems principles and properties by expanding the set of problems addressed by engineers, and to position its graduates as tomorrow's system thinkers and leaders in tackling society's challenges. ESD is an interdisciplinary academic unit that spans most departments within the School of Engineering, as well as all five schools at MIT. Visit

About the Council for Engineering Systems Universities

The Council of Engineering Systems Universities (CESUN) was established in 2004 by universities offering educational and research programs in engineering systems. CESUN membership includes approximately 50 universities in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. The Council provides a mechanism for the member universities to work together developing engineering systems as a new field of study. An overall objective of the Council is to broaden engineering education and practice.

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