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The real world is messy and far more complicated than the neat, reductionist realm of scientists and engineers. Morning commutes snarl into traffic jams as hundreds of cars interact with roadways and one another. Factories designed for efficiency pollute the environment. Molecules and cells interact in perfect concert to help digest a meal or run a marathon-or run amok and form a tumor.

In the real world, disparate components interact in complex systems. Not only does each part of a machine combine with others to form a functioning whole, but there are also workers who must use those machines, and different machines that must work together. The entire structure influences and is influenced by external factors. At MIT, engineers and scientists are recognizing the necessity of viewing their subjects as systems rather than isolated mechanisms.

This attitude is yielding new programs that not only cross departmental boundaries but also integrate faculty from different schools into interdisciplinary-education programs and research efforts. For example, the Engineering Systems Division (ESD) was established in 1998 to create theory and practice about large-scale engineering projects, and efforts have been under way since the fall of 2001 to create the Computational and Systems Biology Initiative. Both programs grew out of professors’ grass-roots efforts to respond to the changing world and the evolving practice of engineering and biology.

Engineering Systems Division

Engineers cannot operate in isolation: they must deal with government regulators, economists, laborers, and managers; many of them have to deal with becoming managers themselves. Rarely do all those collaborators work together effortlessly. And on very large engineering projects, such as Boston’s Big Dig and the International Space Station, especially difficult problems are likely to arise. Engineers have come to realize that they require an understanding of large-scale systems both to help them anticipate potential engineering problems and to keep the projects running smoothly. “Technology is playing a more and more important role in society today,” says Daniel Roos ‘61, SM ‘63, PhD ‘66, associate dean for engineering systems. “Our products and our systems are getting both larger and more complex.We have to have a broader understanding than just the technology.”

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