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ESD Interim Director Joseph Sussman discusses the case for complex sociotechnical systems as a new field of study

Delivers annual Charles L. Miller Lecture
Professor Joseph Sussman presents the 2012 Charles L. Miller Lecture.
Professor Joseph Sussman presents the 2012 Charles L. Miller Lecture.
Photo: Stefanie Koperniak

Joseph Sussman, JR East Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering Systems and interim director of the MIT Engineering Systems Division, presented this year’s Charles L. Miller Lecture, titled “Complex Sociotechnical Systems: The Case for a New Field of Study,” to an overflow audience in Grier Room B (Building 34) on April 25. This lecture series is co-sponsored by the MIT Engineering Systems Division and the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE), and honors Charles L. Miller, who served as head of CEE from 1962-1969.

Sussman defined and examined the linked concepts of “critical contemporary issues” and “complex sociotechnical systems.” Critical contemporary issues encompass the most significant and pressing challenges we face today, including issues such as global climate change, energy/environment, the global economy, national security and mobility. These issues often involve technical systems and components, and also have great social, political and/or economic relevance.
In addition, these issues are all interlinked in some way, a point Sussman illustrated with a quote by former first lady Lady Bird Johnson (included in her obituary in The Economist on July 21, 2007) observing that dealing with highway beautification was like “picking up a tangled skein of wool; all the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate and rapid transit, and the war on poverty, and parks ... everything leads to something else.”

Sussman discussed some different types of complexity, explaining that the study of complex sociotechnical systems must also be applicable to the actual design of such systems.

“Those of us interested in complex sociotechnical systems are not just observers of the systems,” Sussman said, explaining that these systems are “purposeful.” Ultimately, it is not enough to consider whether a system is performing well, but it is more important to “consider what good performance actually means,” he added.

Sussman offered a real-world example of a major transportation project in Mexico City to show many interlinked challenges (such as mobility and productivity problems, environmental impacts on human health, and social equity issues), all existing within a complex institutional sphere.

Sussman suggested that a key aspect of the study of complex sociotechnical systems is to have core, underlying concepts for creating integrated approaches across domains — so that challenges are not just addressed individually and in isolation, but are addressed with a set of principles and tools that can be transferable to many different systems.

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