SDM Co-founder Thomas Magnanti Previews His Latest Startup: a New University

Thomas Magnanti By Eric Smalley
September 16, 2011

He’s one of 13 MIT Institute Professors, former dean of the School of Engineering and former head of Management Science at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He co-founded MIT’s System Design and Management and Leaders for Manufacturing programs. He was also the founding director of MIT’s largest international research center, the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART). So what is he doing for an encore? How about launching an entire new university?

Thomas L. Magnanti is now president of the newly established Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), a collaboration among Singapore, MIT, and China’s Zhegiang University. SUTD addresses many of the world’s most pressing problems by focusing on technology and design, said Magnanti.

According to Magnanti, SUTD is well positioned to capitalize on the world’s fastest growing economy — Asia — and to become an important research, technology, and learning hub. "It’s an opportunity to blend the East and the West, in particular because of where Singapore is located and because it’s English-speaking," he explained.

The university’s technology and design focus parallels MIT’s history. MIT began as a university dedicated to architecture and technology in the emerging American market of the mid-19th century. "In some ways what we’re trying to do, as best we can, is re-create MIT for today’s world," said Magnanti.

Magnanti is a keynote speaker at the 2011 MIT SDM Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges in October. His talk, "Systems, Design, and Management and the Educational and Research Mission of Today’s Universities," will examine how academic institutions should shape their curricula and research agendas to help deal with today’s pressing issues. The unique opportunity to build a university from the ground up provides an ideal illustration of the question.

For context, Magnanti points to the National Academy of Engineering’s list of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th century. These 20 items, including electrification, the automobile, aircraft, spacecraft, computers, and the Internet, have dramatically changed the quality of everyone’s lives. "Most of the major industries that underlie the US and other economies are based upon those innovations, and many of the items on that list are systems," he said.

More recently, technological advances and globalization have made systems a crucial aspect of the world’s major issues. "The world has increasingly recognized the importance of complex technical systems, whether those are energy systems, environmental systems, transportation systems, or healthcare systems.

When Magnanti co-founded SDM 15 years ago, he recognized the need to bring engineering and management together to prepare leaders for the challenges posed by complex systems, for example modernizing the electrical grid or streamlining design and management in the aircraft industry. The goal was to address the many important issues that arise in the world of engineered systems and at the interface between engineering and management, he said. "There was a need to also think carefully about engineering practice within large organizations."

Magnanti noted that while SDM’s mission and core curriculum have remained intact over the years, the program has been enriched by added emphasis on leadership, innovation, and systems thinking. "By coupling offerings from MIT’s acclaimed engineering and management schools," concluded Magnanti, "SDM continues to offer an unbeatable combination to students and to industry."

Thomas L. Magnanti