This book of proceedings contains peer-reviewed papers that were presented at the 29th ISTE International Conference on Transdisciplinary Engineering (TE2022), organized by System Design and Management (SDM) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, United States from July 5–8, 2022.
TE2022 brought together a diverse global community of scholars and practitioners in dialogue and reflection on unmapped: underline engineering itself. Engineering is changing rapidly. The connectedness of the world’s most critical systems along with rapid advancement of methods push us to ask “How will we teach, research, and practice engineering?”
The recent decade has shown an ongoing shift towards model-based design, instrumented products and teams, data-driven analytics, rapid prototyping, and continuous delivery. These changes are enabled on digital and physical platforms driven by distributed teams and open interfaces. Transformations are underway in several industrial sectors, including energy, agriculture, health, and transportation.
It is an exciting time to be an engineer.
We recognize the insufficiency of boundary management and occasional border crossing amongst traditional technical domains, as engineers move beyond disciplinary norms established in the mid to late 20th century. Today engineers are called to address systems in their context across a lifecycle, to collaborate with a myriad of stakeholders and non-engineering experts, and – for these most valuable and daunting challenges – to generate new engineering disciplines.
Yet what is transdisciplinary engineering, and why might we make a distinction? After all, engineering and other practical professionals by their nature have required the collaboration of many disciplines. Would not other labels, for example multi-disciplinary or cross-functional, be the same? A fair question.
Please allow me to share why I believe a transdisciplinary engineering lens is different. I was inspired as an undergraduate engineering student by Don Schon, a mentor who is well known for his remarkable contributions on reflective practice. Schon, a philosopher who worked closely with urban planning, policy, and architecture, was very interested also in engineering and design. When I met him, he was fascinated by the ways that visual and computational models might lead to improved “conversation with the materials” and further improved dialogue amongst stakeholders. My talks with Don stuck with me, and I have often thought about what it means for engineers to be in conversation with the world around us.
Since then, during three decades of industrial work on engineering projects, his deep observations continued to resonate. I’ve seen it many times myself: great engineering to solve tough problems includes and exceeds the disciplinary know-how of specific engineering specialties.
Today’s complex problems, especially those with significant impact on nature and society, require a problem-solving approach which engages significantly beyond traditional engineering.
An exposure to a broader set of requirements, dimensions of performance, and stakeholders pushes specialists and integrators to adjust, apply, and learn in ways that can defy well-accepted assumptions and norms. Disciplinary abstractions are tested in the face of natural complexity. Successful engineers are not only conversant in their own field, but also prepared and proactive to engage with a range of disciplines, technical and social, especially user and practitioner communities. These engineers talk with users, communities, sociologists, economists, artists, scientists, and (even!) lawyers. Engineering for complex sociotechnical system challenges stretches one beyond the assembly of the work of specialists.
Of course, such transdisciplinary practice itself is not new. If fact, if we examine some of the greatest engineering teams in our histories, we can see that their trandisciplinarity helped them to outperform, to face unexpected challenges, to recognize emergent risks and opportunities, to learn and innovate. Similarly, some of the most saddening engineering failures are driven by engineering teams’ inability to see beyond their narrow specializations and their lack of “conversation” with society and nature.
The International Society of Transdisciplinary Engineering (ISTE) aims to explore the evolution of engineering including transdisciplinary practices. We explore how engineers of the future may be better prepared for design, production, and operational decisions that lead to sustainable benefits and costs shared equitably across society and nature.
Engineers in a “conversation with the materials”, conversation with one another, and conversation with nature.
Bryan R. Moser
August 2, 2022
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, MA USA