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MIT System Thinking Conference 2010

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Rafael Marañón, Co-founder MIT Social Media Club

System Design and Management (SDM) Fellow Program.

Presentations and videos from the conference can be viewed at
By David Rosenbaum
October 25, 2010

Over 300 attended the two-day conference 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 VP in Boeing's 787 Program, described the complex process of how the 787 was brought to market, followed by Kevin Otto, founder and President of Robust Systems and Strategy, a research and development consultancy, who 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%, convert 50% of its open space to sustainable agriculture, achieve 100% grey water reuse, and have it produce 100% 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 2 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 five to 20% of vets 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 and videos from the conference can be viewed at

George Apostolakis, Systems Issues in Nuclear Reactor Safety

Bruce Beihoff, Home of the Future: System of the Future

Mark Jenks, Boeing's 787 and the Challenges of Complex Global Systems

Pat Hale, MIT Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges 2010 - Complexity and Innovation in Energy, Sustainability, Healthcare, Service Systems Recap of Day 1 and Overview of Day 2

Kristian Kloeckl, Senseable City Laboratory, Lead, Real Time City Group

Richard C. Larson, The Transformation of Service Industries

Blackford Middleton, Re-engineering US Health Care with Health-Care Information Technology - Promises and Peril

Satish Narayanan, Sustainable and Energy-Efficient Urban and Built Infrastructure Development: Opportunities and Challenges in Systems Engineering

Deborah J. Nightingale, Service Systems Innovation for Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress in the U.S. Military: An Enterprise Systems Approach

Kevin Otto, Societal Scale Modeling: Quantifying the Technology and Policies Needed for Global Zero-Carbon-Emission Building Infrastructure

Roberto A. Rocha, Clinical Knowledge Management at Scale: Fulfilling the Promise of Pervasive Computerized Clinical Decision Support for Providers and Consumers

Andrew Scott, Balancing Urban Systems through Design: Decarbonizing Urban Communities for 2050

John D. Sterman, A Banquet of Consequences: Systems Thinking and Modeling for Climate Change Policy

Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Technology and Innovation in the Service Economy

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Rafael Marañón, Co-founder MIT Social Media Club

Rafael Marañón, Co-founder MIT Social Media Club

Category: Management | Updated over 4 years ago

December 22, 2010 20:47
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