Alums explore broad scope of systems at SDM conference

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee keynotes

By Kathryn M. O’Neill
October 31, 2007

What do these stories have in common? The harrowing tale of the first nonstop around-the-world flight accomplished without refueling. The surprising development of a nanotechnology that stops bleeding. And an inside look at how NASA plans to get us to Mars.

All were presented to the 2007 System Design and Management Conference, held October 18-19, 2007, at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA.

Sponsored by Cisco, Ford, United Technologies and Vonage, "Cogitate, (re)Connect & Collaborate" drew SDM alumni from across the world back to campus, as well as current and prospective SDM students, industry executives, faculty and staff.

The conference covered a range of topics relevant to leadership in technical companies, from "Serendipity in Product Development," which included the talks on the Voyager aircraft and bleeding control, to "Keep the Science—Change Everything Else," a panel discussion on leading organizations, including NASA, through major transitions.

Conference chair Carol Ann McDevitt SDM ’01 organized the event, along with past-chairs Geoff Langos SDM ’02 and David Willmes SDM ’02. Committee members JC Duh SDM ’01, Gordon Johnston SDM ’01, Jay Mullooly SDM ’00, Sreeram Thirukkonda SDM ’07, Russ Wertenberg SDM ’01 and Kostas Zafiriou SDM ’04 organized the sessions and logistics.

Popular former MIT professor (now on the faculty at Boston University) Paul Carlile led the conference with an overview of his latest research, which addresses the key question of innovation: what to change and what to keep the same. "We tend to laud the value of the new," Carlile said, but too much novelty leads to chaos.

Carlile offered examples of innovation in open-source software and in the development of Toyota’s Lexus. He also described a fresh approach to basic science—a nonprofit set up as a cross-functional team that shares everything, even mistakes.

"The pharmaceutical system is fundamentally broken, so they’re starting to get interested in this," Carlile said. "I think a lot of innovation is going to come from nonprofits."

Carlile’s talk helped introduce attendees to current topics in the program. Sloan senior lecturer Michael Davies, who teaches technology strategy, and ESD Associate Professor Dan Frey, who teaches systems engineering, introduced their subjects as well.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, gave a lively talk on web science, describing how rules set at the micro level scale up to a system that now encompasses 10 billion web pages. The system is so complex, it’s impossible to anticipate changes. "It emerges, then people analyze it and try to make it better," he said.

Google and Wikipedia have already addressed a few problems. In the future we may see open social networking and the semantic web. "Maybe we’ll do so much experimentation that we’ll figure out a better way to run the world," Berners-Lee said.

Chris DeNovellis from Cisco emphasized the need to use the web to facilitate collaboration. "The real importance is connecting people to people," he said. DeNovellis described Cisco’s new TelePresence technology, designed to make distance meetings appear to be face-to-face. He also demonstrated Second Life, a three-dimensional web world where you can interact with other web visitors and sites—almost like a video game version of the web.

The first afternoon of the conference ended in a hands-on workshop, a new event. Conference attendees were offered a choice of sessions: they could use wikis, Facebook, and Second Life themselves and discuss how to use the new technologies at work. The Second Life session was the most lively, with one attendee commenting afterward, "It is like a whole new world out there." The workshop resulted in what McDevitt called a "very needed update" to the Wikipedia definition of "system design" and the creation of an SDM alumni social networking group on Facebook called MIT’s System Design and Management (MIT SDM) alumni, which all alumni are invited to join (

MIT research scientist Rutledge Ellis-Behnke gave a talk on innovation in another area, describing how his work on self-assembling peptide nanofibers took off. While experimenting with the substance in brain surgery, he saw that bleeding had stopped; at first he thought the animal had died.

Instead, he had discovered something really revolutionary – a substance that stops bleeding. "We were doing one thing and we discovered something else," he said.

W. David Schwaderer of Symantec Technology illustrated the opposite road to innovation with Voyager, a plane that went around the world in 1986 without refueling. Its road to success was long and nearly disastrous. "You don’t want to know too much," Schwaderer said. "If you know too much, odds are good you will not start."

MIT Professor Richard de Neufville nicely tied the talks together in his own presentation on options in design: "You want to stack the deck in your favor," he said, by building flexibility into any system. The goal is always to minimize risk but also to be prepared to take advantage of new opportunities.

The focus shifted slightly from technology to management during the panel talk "Organizational Change: Taking It From Theory to Reality." Johnston, Duh, and Wertenberg shared the challenges they face at NASA as the huge organization ends the shuttle program and gears up for manned flight to Mars. "It really takes the whole team to pay attention to this kind of transition," Duh said.

In the final talk, Mullooly described how he turned around Pratt & Whitney-Paton in Ukraine by refocusing on core competencies, keeping the lines of communication open and remaining sensitive to cultural difference.

"Easy things are not easy sometimes," he said. "In this kind of job, the sky falls every day."

And that’s a familiar story.