Move Over, Big Data! How Small, Simple Models Can Yield Big Insights


MIT SDM Systems Thinking Webinar SeriesRichard C. Larson

Richard C. Larson, Ph.D., Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems and Director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, MIT

Date: September 8, 2014

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About the Presentation

Today’s emphasis on big data and data analytics may leave some folks thinking that management and policy insights can only arise from the analysis of millions of data entries. Nothing could be further from the truth! Sometimes less is more. In fact, an excess of numbers can engender more headaches than insight.

In this talk, managers and policymakers will learn how simple mathematical models of systems can improve intuition and lead to better decisions. Dr. Larson will provide concrete examples from his professional research and consulting engagements, then discuss general applications to industry. He will cover:

  • Flaws of averages—what they are and how to avoid them;
  • Square root laws—how to apply them to locating facilities and more;
  • Singularities—why and how managers of service systems must schedule idle time for servers or face huge waiting lines (aka the “elbow effect”);
  • Simple difference equations—how to use them to discover major system instabilities when inputs are year-to-year gross revenues;
  • Going viral—how a major demography parameter can apply to exponential explosiveness in many business sectors; and
  • Lateral thinking—and how it can sometimes make a problem go away.

Learn to cut to the chase, see the big picture, and stay out of the weeds!

A Q&A will follow the presentation. We invite you to join us.

About the Speaker

Professor Richard C. Larson has been a member of the MIT faculty for more than four decades, in four different academic departments. During this time he has also led an off-campus consulting firm that has invented novel approaches—inspired from operations research and industrial engineering—to complex systems problems in the private and public sectors. He has served as president of both the Operations Research Society of America and the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences. He has worked closely with a wide variety of organizations, including—in the private sector—banks, airlines, retailers, industrial gas distributors, amusement parks, and—in the public sector—the City of New York, many public school systems, the U.S. Postal Service, the World Bank, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and numerous police departments. At MIT he has founded several initiatives, including MIT Learning International Networks Consortium and MIT Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies.

Dr. Larson is a member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and cochairs a major panel on the application of systems engineering to health, cosponsored by the NAE and the Institute of Medicine.

About the Series

The MIT System Design and Management Program Systems Thinking Webinar Series features research conducted by SDM faculty, alumni, students, and industry partners. The series is designed to disseminate information on how to employ systems thinking to address engineering, management, and socio-political components of complex challenges.