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conference 09

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System Design and Management and Engineering Systems:
Grappling with Intertwined Technological and Social Complexity


Olivier L. de Weck, Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems; Associate Director of the MIT Engineering Systems Division

In this opening talk, I will discuss and list some of the most pressing societal challenges we face today and argue that their solution requires both systems thinking as well as new methods and tools for dealing with intertwined technological and social complexity. These challenges include the provisioning of clean energy and mitigation of climate change, the revision of our health care system to maximize value, as well as the renewal of our critical infrastructures, including more efficient transportation and global logistics.

All of these domains are in need of technological innovation, and such innovation is indeed happening. I will show specific examples of new technologies that have the potential for substantial impact, such as on-board hydrogen fuel reformers and real time RFID monitoring and management of systems via the internet. However, by themselves such technologies cannot solve the challenges we face. Only once they are fully embedded into their host systems do they gain the potential to deliver value.

This requires a broader perspective including issues of technology infusion and engineering change, costs and benefits, social acceptance and incentives as well as the role of government regulations and standards. Thus, the higher the level of abstraction, the more intertwined the technological, social and managerial dimensions of the problem will be. This is the overall challenge we face today and the main theme of this year's conference.

I will close with a discussion of the role of System Design and Management in the context of Engineering Systems. Engineering Systems are the complex networks of artifacts and people that fulfill some of the most important functions in society today and we are striving towards better ways of modeling, analyzing, designing and management these systems in the future.

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