Entry Date:
October 1, 2008

Strategic Engineering Research Group (SERG): Designing Systems for an Uncertain Future

Principal Investigator Olivier de Weck

Co-investigator Afreen Siddiqi

Project Website http://strategic.mit.edu/

Many man-made systems and products such as aircraft, spacecraft, automobiles, printers, service systems as well as critical infrastructures such as roads and power plants are rigid point designs that cannot easily be changed after their initial deployment. This often causes significant problems because the world is changing at a faster and faster pace and many aspects of a system's future operating environment are uncertain.

Engineering is not just about designing systems and products so they work when you first take them "out of the box" and turn them on. That's when the real game starts.Systems that take only a few years to design and implement often operate for many decades, some of them will operate for centuries. It is important to consider the whole lifecycle, even if it is very uncertain.

Here are some of the questions being studied:

(*) Is the system reliable and does it perform robustly over a range of future operating conditions? What is its useful lifetime?
(*) How easy is it to upgrade or modify the system by adding new functions, different features, infusing new technologies or scaling it up in size?
(*) How do man-made systems like roads, electrical power grids, airline networks etc... evolve over time and are there predictable patterns to such evolution?
(*) Is it possible to develop new versions or variants from a product for new markets? How expensive or profitable is that ?
(*) How does the underlying architecture of a system, its degree of modularity or decentralization impact its lifecycle properties such as its flexibility to evolve?
(*) When does a system become obsolete or too complex and when it is time to retire it and replace it with a new system? How do you introduce a new system, while continuing to operate the old one?
(*) What is the future of our technological human civilization on Earth? What does it take to explore space in a sustained way? What are the real requirements for long term space exploration campaigns, and eventually for planetary colonies?

The group tries to answer some of these questions in rigorous and quantiative ways, developing -- where necessary -- new integrated approaches based on the principles of systems architecture and systems engineering, design, complexity science, management of technology, project management, strategy and economics.

Emphasis is on successful development and adoption of new methods and tools in a variety of organizations to solve problems in product development, deployment of critical infrastructures, space exploration, oil and gas exploration, renewable energy sources as well as industrial manufacturing, among others. We believe that explicitely designing systems for uncertain future conditions and requirements will change the mindset and practice of engineering as we know it today.

Strategic Engineering is the process of architecting and designing complex systems and products in a way that deliberately accounts for future uncertainty and context in order to maximize their lifecycle value.