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Academic, industry and government leaders explore systems thinking

Annual conference examines how approach could help solve the world's pressing problems.

More than 300 guests attended the two-day MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges to hear experts from MIT, industry and government discuss how they use systems thinking to solve some of the world’s most pressing and complex problems.

Sponsored by Global Project Design, Werfen Group/Instrumentation Laboratory, John Deere, Merck, MITRE and United Technologies Research Center (UTRC), the conference addressed Large Complex Systems; Sustainable Systems; Service Systems, and Health Care Systems.

Commissioner George Apostolakis of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) delivered the keynote presentation. He described how the NRC, charged with ensuring that nuclear use is as safe as possible, is implementing a synthesis of Defense in Depth with a Risk-Informed approach based on system thinking. The goal is a safety culture that takes into greater account the psychology of individual behavior.

Mark Jenks, a vice president in Boeing’s 787 program, described the complex process of how the 787 was brought to market; Kevin Otto, founder and president of Robust Systems and Strategy, a research and development consultancy, addressed issues affecting the construction of Net Zero Energy Buildings (NZEBs) that will reduce — rather than enlarge — the atmosphere’s already untenable carbon load.

Satish Narayann of UTRC described a methodology for optimizing NZEBs, which are more costly to build, and more systems-dependent than traditional buildings. MIT Professor Andrew Scott then discussed his work with Sekisui House, Japan’s leading home builder, in which Scott and his team devised a plan to reduce the town’s carbon footprint by 80 percent, convert 50 percent of its open space to sustainable agriculture, achieve 100 precent grey water reuse, and have it produce 100 percent of its energy on site — all by 2050.

Whirlpool’s Bruce Beihoff scaled down the discussion to the individual home — specifically sustainable systems that reduce waste and improve energy efficiency. The technology, Beihoff insisted, is already here; what’s needed is “the preparation of leaders to make it happen, leaders developed at places like SDM.”

Professor John Sterman concluded the day with a presentation on climate change. He believes the general failure of governments, leaders and individuals to understand system thinking is responsible for the current climate-change policy. “Our mental models,” he said, “are short-term, siloed, linear and uncomprehending of risk” while complex systems, like the climate, are “non-linear, dynamic, and governed by feedback.” Unless people begin to feel the impact of their actions on the climate, Sterman fears little will change.

“There is no TARP program for the planet,” he said. “Nature does not give bailouts.”

The morning session of day two focused on Service Systems. MIT Visiting Lecturer Irving Wladawsky-Berger analyzed the global growth of the service economy, contrasting the change from the Industrial Economy’s focus on physical objects with the Service Economy’s focus on people and information. Professor Richard Larsen followed with an analysis of the burgeoning service economy that subtracts labor on the provider side and adds it to the customer side, as is the case with ATMs. Industrializing service through technology is the next frontier, he suggested, and advocated improving education through distance-learning technologies.

Kristin Kloeckl, a fellow at the Senseable City Lab, described his team’s work on improving the lives of urban populations through better system design and better distribution of information. Kloeckl said that in the future, a real-time copy of the physical city will be accessible digitally to all its citizens, allowing individuals to make better short-term decisions regarding, for example, transportation. This can (through feedback) improve conditions for everyone.

Professor Deborah Nightingale discussed her work in applying system thinking to the preventing and treating of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from which 5 to 20 percent of veterans returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer. A panel discussion and Q&A of all Service Systems speakers followed.

Health-care systems were discussed in the conference’s final segment. Dr. Blackford Middleton of Partners HealthCare System suggested that the current system is not a health-care system focused on the prevention of disease, but a disease system, focused on treating sickness. He said healthcare IT can change that, while improving quality by removing the major source of medical error: the lack of timely, accessible information.

Dr. Roberto A. Rocha discussed how to provide physicians with Computerized Decision Support (CDS) in a time when “the scientific literature has doubled in the last 20 years.” Unfortunately, the barriers to adopting CDS are many, ranging from a lack of downloadable, structured data to the absence of accepted, standardized ways of describing diseases.

The conference concluded with MIT AgeLab Director Joseph F. Coughlin’s provocative (and system thinking-derived) argument that the real cost center in the health-care equation is the individual. He suggested that prognostic engineering, used to predict failure in machines, could be applied to humans to transform the current, expensive disease model of health care into a less costly, more productive system.

Presentations from the conference can be viewed at Videos are scheduled to be made available on by mid-November.


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