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Systems thinking conference highlights practical applications in healthcare, education, product development

Dr. Katharine Frase, VP Industry Solutions and Emerging Business, IBM Research, discussed Watson and its implications for industry and society.
Dr. Katharine Frase, VP Industry Solutions and Emerging Business, IBM Research, discussed Watson and its implications for industry and society.
Photo: Dave Schultz, SDM

Whatever your profession, systems thinking is critical for success in the global economy, according to speakers at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges.

The annual event, sponsored by MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program, drew almost 300 attendees from across MIT and around the world on Oct. 24 and 25. This year’s conference, which highlighted SDM’s 15th anniversary and featured several SDM alumni speakers who are now senior executives, focused on addressing complexity and innovation in health care, education and product development.

Speaking live from Moscow, Russia, via remote video conferencing, keynote presenter and SDM co-founder Edward Crawley first defined systems in order to give attendees a common understanding of the term. “A system is a set of interrelated entities that perform a function,” said Crawley, the Ford Professor of Engineering in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The function that emerges, he said, is greater than what could come from any single entity — and the overall system’s “emergent properties” are what produce value.

Crawley then explained that systems thinking is a way of looking at problems in context, in order to more successfully predict what will emerge to ensure value. “This is the real art and the real goal of systems thinking — training yourself in the domain in which you work to look at an unprecedented system, predict outcomes and add value,” Crawley said. In essence, using systems thinking helps make complex challenges less complicated.

Several speakers subsequently outlined complex challenges in health care. In Tuesday’s keynote, Julian Goldman, who directs the Program on Medical Device Interoperability at Massachusetts General Hospital, described some of the problems hospitals have in managing incompatible medical devices.

The result, Goldman explained, is that most medical devices are not interoperable and cannot be synchronized or networked. This can cause “alarm fatigue” in medical professionals who must monitor multiple devices simultaneously, often while managing a medical crisis. The consequences can be dire. “We have many well-reported incidents of adverse results and patient deaths due to alarm fatigue,” he said.

Goldman believes that the root of this problem is the failure of manufacturers to consider each device as part of a wider system. A main reason is the complexity involved in developing devices that connect to those produced by other manufacturers, because this would complicate a wide range of considerations at every level of the system, from user instructions to liability.

Other conference speakers highlighted applications and the need for systems thinking in fields as diverse as aeronautics, engine control, flu prevention and food safety.

For example, John Helferich SDM ’10, former senior vice president of R&D for Mars Inc. and currently a PhD student in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, noted that although thousands of deaths from food-borne illnesses occur annually in the United States, the food industry does not have consistent safety standards along the supply chain from farm to table. “Think about all the things we do to fly safely,” he said. “We don’t have that stringency in food safety.”

A panel titled “Watson, Analytics, and the Implications for Industry and Society” brought together IBM vice president Katharine Frase, SDM alumnus and Bank of America executive Doug Hague and health care consultant David Hartzband, who discussed computing in banking and health care.

The conference also emphasized education, from MIT’s Richard C. Larson’s discussion of technology-enabled learning around the world to new universities launching in Singapore and Moscow led by SDM co-founders and conference keynotes Institute Professor Thomas Magnanti and Crawley.

The need is for people who understand systems and people who understand information technology,” said Magnanti, the founding president of Singapore University of Technology and Design, which will open in April. “Future success will depend on educating more people in systems thinking.”

Visit to view videos of presentations delivered at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges.

Next year's conference will be held at MIT on Oct. 22 and 23, 2012.

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