Strategy and Design

October 18, 2011

As I had mentioned in my previous post, I had been on a Smarter Cities Challenge engagement in September, looking at combating the problem of vacant properties in Syracuse.  Besides spending time with a statistician, I also spent time with technology strategists.  This inspired me to read a Harvard doctoral dissertation by Charles Jason Woodward, Architectural Strategy and Design Evolution in Complex Engineered Systems.  He began his career at IBM before going to Harvard.  The beginning of the abstract is as follows.

Engineers have traditionally been trained to solve design problems without regard to the potentially competing interests of other designers. But just as technology strategists are increasingly drawn into the technical minutiae of product development decisions, engineers are increasingly exposed to the competitive forces that shape their requirements and the resources at their disposal. I propose that architectural strategy—the application of strategic thinking to system design problems—should therefore be integrated with the theory and practice of engineering design.

I found several parts of it to be rather interesting, and so I thought I’d share a thought or two from it with you.  First a working definition of strategic interdependence:

…artifacts are composed of many interacting parts, typically designed by teams of people spread across many organizations.  In turn, they function as parts of larger systems, such as the Internet and the global transportation network, whose designs evolve without centralized coordination or control.  Although design decisions are dispersed in such systems, the interests of the designers are often intertwined.  When one designer’s decisions affect the outcomes of another’s design process and vice versa, their designs are strategically interdependent.  Strategic designers act with an awareness of their influence on other designers, which often arises from technological interdependence among the artifacts being designed. 

The main theoretical construct introduced by Woodward is a generalization of a design structure matrix (DSM) (which finds all kinds of uses) and is called a design structure network (DSN).  It is rather expressive and is used to develop the theoretical construct of a system design game (SDG), where dynamics come into play.  As he says:

If architectural strategy were a game, then a design structure network would be an image of the playing field at a snapshot in time.  While a still picture may display evidence
of motion, one can neither predict the players’ trajectories nor explain their history without knowing something about the forces that propel them.  In the context of strategic system design, these forces arise from interactions among agents (such as designers, consumers, regulators, and financiers) that are mediated by artifacts and institutions.  

I know you have had some recent interest in dynamics of systems, so I wonder if this idea would be of interest.  In any case, Woodward goes on to perform Monte Carlo experiments to play out large SDGs and develops insight into system design with architectural constraints.  Let me not give away the punchlines.

In my earliest research work, I used Monte Carlo simulations to derive results, but have not used that methodology since.  Perhaps it is time to return to it: I just need a good problem.  Any suggestions?  Simulating a (smarter) city?   

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