Monday, March 1, 2010

SEAri addresses challenge of ‘epochs’ within system’s lifespan - SDM Pulse Spring 2010

The process of designing complex systems to meet specific stakeholder needs is a challenge in itself, but the real world ups the ante even further because it is constantly changing.

Although traditional systems engineering approaches often assume one fixed context, a real system is likely to encounter multiple contexts throughout its lifespan. At the MIT Systems Engineering Advancement Research Initiative (SEAri), researchers have observed that systems are fielded in a period of time—or “epoch”—in which a system’s needs and context are relatively fixed. But then a change in political, economic, resource, or market factors—or even a security threat—triggers a new epoch.

This view of systems reflects the uncertain and dynamic world in which we live. While many traditionally designed systems may perform well initially, they can prove ill-equipped to adapt to new stakeholder needs or to seize opportunities as the world changes around them. They may also develop unexpected vulnerabilities.

For example, military systems designed for air-based conflicts may become useless when the conflict moves to a ground-based environment. A well-designed construction vehicle may prove unaffordable when more stringent emissions standards make upgrades necessary. The world is filled with such examples, and while not all systems can be made valuable for all circumstances, there are design strategies that can make some systems more changeable or versatile. The key to better designs for dynamic relevance, according to SEAri researchers, is epoch-based thinking.

At SEAri’s annual research summit, held in October 2009, SEAri researchers and invited attendees discussed the critical need for addressing epoch shifts that disrupt system value delivery. In addition, research staff and graduate students shared progress on new methods to respond to this challenge.

SEAri research scientist Adam Ross describes epochbased thinking as “a tool to support systems leaders in anticipating and assessing impacts of possible future
shifts in policy, resources, technologies, leadership, markets, and stakeholder needs.” According to Ross, “we have been making significant progress in developing advanced methods to permit more effective evaluation of system performance across such shifts in contexts and needs, leading to formulation of strategies for designing and evolving complex systems that are appropriately resilient and/or changeable.” The approach has its origins in his prior doctoral research conducted in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division and has been evolved over several years and follow-on theses.

“Epoch-based thinking has become critically important for the engineering of complex systems and also for architecting enterprises that are capable of thriving in a
dynamic world,” said SEAri director and research scientist Donna Rhodes. “While we cannot predict the future, we can make better decisions about complex systems and enterprises through formal approaches in order to anticipate possible futures and responsive strategies.”

The SEAri group is currently working on parametric model-based approaches as well as “back-of-the envelope” (or concept-level) approaches for epoch-based analysis. A number of recent master’s and doctoral theses have also furthered the epoch-based methods using computational approaches. And, SDM student Kevin Koo has recently been working with SEAri to research the application of epoch-based thinking to a defense system-of-systems application. Koo is one of five SDM students SEAri researchers are presently supervising on thesis research that will impact systems practice in industry and government.

To foster epoch-based thinking, in July 2010, SEAri will offer a two-day short course—Epoch-Based Thinking: Designing Complex Systems for an Uncertain World—which is open to interested professionals through the MIT Professional Education Programs. The course will engage participants in examining the challenges and motivations faced by systems leaders and will teach how these new methods can be applied to designing and evolving complex systems and enterprises.

More information on SEAri and its research is available at

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