Zach Ives: Engineering New Realms of the Networked Economy

"I can't think of a better place to innovate than at the cutting edge of the networked economy," says Zachary G. Ives, undergraduate curriculum chair of Penn Engineering's new Rajendra and Neera Singh Program in Market and Social Systems Engineering (MKSE).

"The whole economy is being driven by networked technology. It's the most fruitful place to be creative—particularly now that all communication, with the exception of face-to-face, is converging on the Internet. You need a lot of rigor to understand the tools of the field, but then you need to go way beyond," says Ives, associate professor and Markowitz Faculty Fellow in Computer and Information Science (CIS).

While Penn's new major in Market and Social Systems Engineering may well launch another Mark Zuckerberg, its scope is far beyond social networking. The Singh Program is the world's first undergraduate engineering curriculum for the networked economy, and is designed to train technology leaders who will shape globally interdependent markets, businesses and organizations.

"This highly competitive program appeals to students of the networked age for whom everything is interactive and dynamic on the Internet all the time," says Ives, a member of the Singh Program's leadership team working with faculty and industry to continually refine and expand the program's core engineering courses and technical electives. "We're thinking about ways to engage interest and spark innovation. Virtually every engineering challenge in this emerging field requires collaboration and creativity."

Ives cites two examples of his approach from Market and Social Systems on the Internet, a new course he piloted and co-taught this spring with CIS Professor Sampath Kannan. While studying social networks, students were asked to build a friend recommender in Java, using visual tools and anonymized data from a real social network. Another assignment was developed days after The New York Times reported that retailer J. C. Penney had benefited from frowned-upon search engine optimization techniques during the 2010 holiday shopping season. According to the Times article, the retailer earned lucrative top Google search rankings in many product categories by using link-selling intermediaries – violating Google's optimization guidelines. Google has since ‘corrected' J.C. Penney's search rankings, but remains vulnerable to similar attacks.

Ives asked students to use their knowledge of pageranking algorithms to examine this vulnerability: students received an offline snapshot of Internet pages, and were tasked with creating the right set of links to make a particular page receive a top search score. "Showing how the theory informs the practice is really important," says Ives. "Until recently, we've tended to focus on building systems and machines. But the reality of the networked economy is that engineers are increasingly faced with large numbers of both automated systems and humans; we need to structure how they interact."

Ives plans to continually refine the Singh Program's curriculum based on feedback from students, faculty, alumni, and employers. "This is a dynamic field that's constantly changing," he says. "The program will reflect where the field is moving."

"What engineering should really encourage is an attitude of ‘Can I think about problems differently, see problems nobody saw before, come up with insights nobody had before, and use these insights to make the world a better place?'" says Ives. He adds, fittingly, as one of the forces shaping the new Singh Program in Market and Social Systems Engineering, "It's all about creating things that didn't exist before."

View the full article in Penn Engineering magazine "Zach Ives: Engineering New Realms of the Networked Economy" by Jessica Stein Diamond.

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Zach Ives Faculty Profile
MKSE Program

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