What is Engineering Systems?

Engineering systems is an interdisciplinary field in which the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has played a pioneering role. The term “engineering systems” can have two key meanings:

  1. A class of systems characterized by a high degree of technical complexity, social intricacy, and elaborate processes, aimed at fulfilling important functions in society. Such systems include electrical grids, transportation networks, and manufacturing supply chains.
  2. An emerging field of scholarship that seeks solutions to important, multi-faceted socio-technical problems.

What is “systems thinking”?

Many scientists and technologists search for solutions by studying individual aspects, or pieces, of larger problems. They often devote great effort to isolating increasingly smaller pieces of the larger whole. Systems thinkers, though, expand the view from the small pieces to the bigger picture, view that bigger picture as a system, and explore the interactions within that system. When that system is complex and dynamic — as is true of the most difficult, daunting scientific and technological challenges the world faces today — the systems view can mean the difference between advanced, sustainable solutions and another round of failure.

Systems thinking makes it possible to handle increasing complexity and uncertainty. It offers better approaches to deal with rapid technological change. And it is at the core of the MIT-Portugal Program, in the classroom and in our research projects.

What are some practical applications of engineering systems research?

Engineering systems research tackles real-life challenges, addressing issues such as rebuilding critical infrastructures, working toward energy sustainability and security, and managing global supply chains.

To understand complex systems, one must look at many phenomena that are not considered to be an inherent aspect of engineering, and that require broader knowledge. As practitioners of Engineering Systems and systems thinking, we focus on engineering solutions that combine approaches from science, management, and the social sciences to take a long-term, lifecycle view of systems. We account for multiple stakeholder perspectives. And we explore flexibility, robustness, scalability, safety, security, durability, sustainability, reliability, recyclability, and maintainability — the system qualities often left out of traditional analysis, but critical to developing lasting solutions.

How are engineering systems perspectives and methodologies incorporated into MIT Portugal education programs?

All MIT Portugal degree programs are inherently interdisciplinary. Even the most technical programs include in their curricula topics drawn from areas such as business, management and policy, economics and finance, and system modeling, planning, and design methodologies. Much of our curriculum development was undertaken in collaboration with faculty from MIT’s Engineering Systems Division.

Read our pdf Strategic Report for more about the ways in which Engineering Systems and systems thinking are applied at the MIT Portugal Program.