By Kathryn O’Neill, managing editor, SDM Pulse
Sustainability—both in business and environmental terms—emerged as a central theme of SDM’s Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges conference.
“The world is coming to an understanding of the need for systems thinking,” MIT Sloan Dean David C. Schmittlein said in opening the fall event. “The problems that the world faces have smacked us upside the head. They have to be attacked as systems problems.”
Thinking about whole systems can save companies money, create opportunities and improve the environment, said MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Peter Senge, who linked climate change to a failure of systems thinking. “We’re doing things all the time that have significant longterm consequences that we pretty much ignore,” he said.
The work begins with a vision that encompasses the big picture, said Senge, citing the example of Nike, which set a goal of zero waste and tackled the problem as a design challenge. Today Nike rates all new products based on embedded water, energy, waste, and toxicity. “There’s a fundamental shift that happens when you go from being less bad to being really good,” he said.
“The whole concept that green costs more is an old paradigm. That’s been shattered,” said Paul Murray, director of environmental safety and sustainability at Herman Miller. By setting goals of zero waste, building green, and designing for disassembly, Herman Miller has saved millions through landfill avoidance, lower utility bills, and recycling.
Conference presenters also explored systems approaches to risk management.
“Everybody thinks safety costs—that accidents are just the cost of doing business. Absolutely untrue,” said
Nancy Leveson, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics (aero/astro) and engineering systems.
Designers need to take a systems approach to risk management by building in safety from the start—moving
from preventing failure to enforcing safety constraints.
Systems also need to be designed to evolve and adaptto the risks of an uncertain future, said Olivier de Weck, associate director of ESD and MIT professor of aero/astro and engineering systems. Applying Darwinian principles to system design, de Weck pointed out that survivors both in nature and in business are those that are most adaptable to change.
This principle was reinforced by Lee Ng, a business director in the New Business Creation group at Agilent
Technologies. “When you design a product, you need to be open because a buyer might want to use your product differently than you thought,” said Ng, who is also a PhD graduate of MIT.
One example of evolvable design was explored by Annalisa L. Weigel, the Jerome C. Hunsacker assistant
professor of aero/astro and engineering systems at MIT, who discussed flexible and sustainable space system
architectures. Research has found modular designs could provide flexibility in a cost-effective manner, but the whole spacecraft production system would have to change, she said.
“Product design change alone won’t solve big problems. Organizations, industry and market structures usually need to change as well,” Weigel said.
And that goes to the core of SDM’s systems approach. “Systems thinking is so prominent now because there are very few single theory problems to be solved versus complex systems like the economy and health care,” said Pat Hale, director of SDM’s Fellows Program. “We need to use all the disciplines at our disposal to deal with some of these problems.”
Organized by SDM alumni and staff, SDM’s Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges conference featured 13 presentations and drew more than 230 attendees to MIT on October 23–24, 2008. For more
information, visit the news archive at sdm.mit.edu.
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