This research thrust analyses Decision Making of single and multiple decision makers and stakeholders with different objectives/agendas while incorporating a broad set of cultural, social, economic, physical constraints. Among key concerns, the research thrust does and will address are incorporating uncertainty and flexibility, making trade-offs between conflicting objectives, enabling better decision making through the effective use of large scale data sets, the effect of individual decisions on a network of decision makers, and accounting for behavioral effects in decision making models. The thrust develops tools and methods for Decision Making as they apply to the design, implementation and evaluation of processes, services, systems and devices. One of the key goals of the research thrust is to develop a repository of decision-making tools and a map of how they apply to different design grand challenges.

Research Streams: The Decision Making research thrust embodies several emerging and mature streams of work

  • A pioneering focus area of the research thrust is the paradigm-changing area of Flexibility in Design. Recognizing and dealing with uncertainty is central to this effort. The key idea is to implement real options in design.
  • An emerging focus area is the integration of different decision making tools such as game theoretic models, behavioural experiments and empirical studies of observed decisions into a coherent model of decentralized decision making by multiple stakeholders.
  • Another emerging focus area is networks. Specifically, their modeling and control, social interactions and learning within a network and the accounting for externalities caused by the decisions of participants on the actions of others.
  • Some detail on pioneering research streams: As we increasingly recognize that projections of future “requirements” are unreliable, we have to change our objective from finding a solution for a specific requirement, to designing to meet the range of situations and needs that will prevail in the future. The paradigmatic shift is from optimizing a solution for a single future, which is actually unlikely to occur, to developing a strategy that performs effectively over many possible futures.

    Recognizing and dealing with uncertainty is central to this effort. The effective approach requires us to learn from ongoing developments that resolve early uncertainties, and then to adapt the design in consequence. The task is to develop a “game plan’” to avoid downside outcomes (a ‘win”) and take advantage of upside opportunities (another “win”). This flexible approach thus routinely increases the expected value of designs by 20 to 30% compared to design fixed on a single solution.

    The central idea is to implement real options in design. These may be either “on” the system in that they manage the use of the technological design, or “in” the system in that they are part of the technology itself.  “On” options concern the timing of when to start or stop the use of a system, and contracts that allocate risks and rewards between stakeholders in the performance outcomes of a system.  “In” options enable operators to alter the capacity or function of a technological artifact.

    Simulation is the core analytic methodology.  It has both theoretical and computational advantages.  From the theoretical perspective, it can deal correctly with the non-convex feasible regions that prevail (due to exponential growth, economies of scale and scope, and the inherent non-convexity of option space).  Computationally, its approach to sampling possible outcomes enables it to explore very complicated combinations efficiently – in contrast to the alternatively correct forms of evaluating non-convex feasible regions (such as dynamic programming, lattices, etc.).  The 2011 MIT Press text “Flexibility in Engineering Design” by de Neufville and Scholtes presents the elements of this approach in detail.

    Specific research goals include:

    Long Term:  The long-term objective is to develop a corpus of knowledge about how to implement flexible design for uncertainty.  The idea is to determine better ways to identify promising options, to evaluate them, and to implement them – across the range of problem areas that vary by rate of change, relative size of investment and operating costs, size of production runs, and many other factors. This is a sizeable effort that can occupy us for a generation.

    Start-up: The start-up goals of this effort within the International Design Center have already been accomplished. The first goal was to establish a presence within the IDC, by aligning activities with at least one of Grand Challenges. The Decision Making Thrust thus works closely with the Sustainable Built Environment Grand Challenge.

    The second goal in the start-up period was to identify areas in which we could apply and test approaches to flexibility in design, both in collaboration with colleagues in the IDC, in Singapore, and beyond. This has led to two main streams of activity.  One centers on urban water supply in collaboration with IDC colleagues, and involves doctoral dissertations and masters theses.  The second focuses on the real estate developments in rapidly growing cities, such as Singapore. This work collaborates with Singapore institutions, and with the MIT Center for Real Estate. Additionally, we established joint activities with the Technical University of Munich and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.

    Short term: The overall goal in the next few years is to capitalize on the base established during the start-up phase. Specifically, the plan is to:

  • Complete and publish a monograph on the use of Flexibility in Design for Real Estate Development.
  • Complete four dissertations begun in the start-up phase.
  • Successfully bid for and initiate a major research effort in Flexibility in Design (the Government of Portugal has selected us for a major urban project).
  • We also expect to initiate, in close collaboration with colleagues who have now joined SUTD, a substantial effort focusing on contracts, which so often shape the range of alternatives that designers can productively explore.
  • 2020 Goal: By the end of the decade we expect to be at the center of an international network of collaborators who are jointly working on design decision-making.  At that point, in a way yet to be defined, we fully expect to be conducting workshops and conferences at affiliated universities and sessions at selected conferences.