October 18, 2007

OT: A Draft ESD (Meta) Elevator Speech [2:05 pm]

It’s been a surprisingly busy term, and I’ve seen my blog postings decline in frequency accordingly. Teaching a core TPP class, developing another course and my usual research and administrative responsibilities have taken their toll.

Which is not to say that I’m planning to stop, of course. But it does mean that the frequency of off-topic postings might increase from time to time.

Today is one of those times. The MIT Engineering Systems Division has a new director, one who is striving to shape a more coherent, and cohesive, message about what it is to “do” engineering systems. This is the text of a first stab at an “elevator speech” about what ESD is and since I put as much time into it as I did, it seemed only appropriate that I put is somewhere than into an email. So, here it is:

An ESD Elevator Speech (draft in process - F. Field)

One construction of engineering is that it is the effort to harness objective means to achieving subjective ends1 — the translation of subjective qualities into measurable, quantifiable and (ultimately) specifiable properties. For a long time now, this process of translation has been achieved through the application of the methods and the discoveries of the physical sciences, and the engineering achievements of the 19th and 20th centuries reflect the power of that approach.

However, beginning with the closing half of the last century, engineers have increasingly been confronted with challenges that have tested the limits of this approach. The success of traditional engineering has meant that technological artifacts have been increasingly integrated into modern life, which itself has become reliant upon these artifacts in increasingly varied ways. As technology has become embedded in society, the nature of engineering problems has changed in ways that are incompatible with some of the core notions of engineering problem solving methods.

In particular, the notions of decomposition and reductionism that have served so well are fundamentally inappropriate for many of these new problems. These problems require an engineering assessment that explicitly considers the broad context out of which they arise, rather than an abstraction away from it. While the insights gained from this “engineering science” construction of engineering remain vitally important, there is a need to develop comparable insights by moving in other directions, striving to devise equally effective problem solving strategies that are grounded in other paths to understanding.

While the tools of the emerging field of systems can help, many of the insights required to develop a sense of context for engineering will have to come from fields other than the physical sciences. The social sciences — sociology, anthropology, history, political science, economics, management, and many others — are important sources of both knowledge and methodologies that will be needed to develop the next generation of engineering methods — methods that will give engineers new tools to develop “what works” by broadening the definition of success for a culture grounded in technology.

Similarly, approaches to analysis and assessment that rely less upon closed form calculation and more upon the replication of system behavior, enabled through the rise of computational and modeling power, will be employed to characterize and classify, rather than to reduce a problem to a deterministic or mechanistic form. Engineering requires methods of observation, simulation and characterization that will continue to supplant Newton’s “clockwork universe” paradigm with one that is more consistent with not only what has been learned in the physical sciences, but also one that formally embeds problem-solving in the total context out of which important engineering challenges emerge.

Harnessing the tools of social science while grounding their application within the norms of engineering is what the Engineering Systems Division is about — learning how to do “good” engineering when good is no longer limited to technical efficiency or optimality, but also comprehends the challenges of economic, social and cultural demands — requirements that may not be reducible to mathematical constructs, but are nevertheless fundamental to engineering success.

1 See, for example, Chapter 3 of What Engineers Know and How They Know It; Walter G. Vincenti; Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, MD; 1990; pp. 51-111.

(Yes, I know it’s not really an elevator speech; more of a meta-speech, of which an elevator speech can be made….)

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