Brain City Berlin Ambassador: Prof. Dr. Tamer Boyaci (ESMT European School of Management and Technology)
Professor Tamer Boyaci was lecturing close to 18 years as a professor at the renowed McGill University in Canada. Since moving to Berlin and joining the ESMT in 2015, the Professor of Management Science became Director of Research and Holder of the Michael Diekmann Chair in Management Science.
Brain City Berlin: Could you please describe the focus of your research?
Prof. Boyaci: My background is in operations research. Basically, we solve complicated problems or challenges with mathematical and computational proofs. We have sets of tools like mathematical modelling tools, solving tools, optimization tools and we apply them to different problems. It could be solving healthcare problems or how to optimize processes within the health sector, in hospitals, for example, looking at flows and improving patient times. It could be a problem that a management science person could be interested in. Or organ transplants and allocations: how to do this in the most effective and fair manner. You look at the different needs, so you try to find the best match, for example. Sometimes people call management science the “science of better,” exploring how to make things better. Basically, we’re optimizers. We open our box of tools and, depending on the problem, try to formulate or do an abstract version of it in a mathematical world, and then we try to find solutions.
Brain City Berlin: How did you decide on your field of research? What fascinates you about it?
Prof. Boyaci: I think one of the main reasons why I decided to become an academic was because I was really inspired by great professors who taught me the fundamentals of this field. I think that was when I got my first inspiration. I remember it very well: I was studying industrial engineering and was introduced to applications or tools that dealt with, for example, industrial processes, production planning, optimization on the line, and I found that very fascinating. I was always the kind of person who tried to solve problems. So, it came very natural to me. The field is about solving problems and it’s not repetitive. You can diversify into very different problems and you will never get bored because there’s so many things to solve, and you can keep on learning. To this day, I am still learning new tools which enable me to handle different problems. One I was working on very recently is about how people make decisions or choices when they have limited time, attention, and cognitive capacity. It’s an area which to some extent relates to the neuroscience of decision making, information theory, information constraints, economics and choice.
Brain City Berlin: Do you work together with companies for the applications or is your approach more theoretical?
Prof. Boyaci: My approach is more theoretical in nature, so it does not necessarily require data or applications. My kind of research is general in nature, so it can apply to various businesses and it’s still evolving. When we have a theory, the next step for us is to be able to test it. We first need to test it in a lab environment. Do our predictions really work in the sense that they reflect what people are doing? Now once we have that match, we can use real data and make it more applicable, like immediately applicable decisions. These could be pricing decisions, but the most important question is what I should be offering, since you will not and should not be looking at all the information. Should I give you a few options with a lot of information or a lot of options with only a little information about them? These are all trade-offs made by commercial companies, not just in the telephone or camera industries. It’s also a big problem in the online world where no one goes beyond the second page of the search results. There is also a lot of neuro research and other psychological research that tracks eye movements, etc. and will tell you that people have a pretty small bandwidth when they look at a computer screen.
Brain City Berlin: Do you conduct research all by yourself or do you have an interdisciplinary team?
Prof. Boyaci: We get information from other teams and this is indeed incredibly important. So we can structure a formal way of putting all these elements together and use them to make predictions of what the choices would be. This is partly what I do. The other part is also related to the economics of recovery, so I’ve always been very interested in the social side of business too. I don’t see business just as maximizing company profits. Obviously, business operations have a strong footprint on the environment, so there are natural questions as to how we can minimize that, for example the contribution to carbon emissions by delivering trucks. So, we particularly look at industrial domains that are very important contributors. One is the electronics industry which is the fastest growing and the most hazardous waste stream. Each yaer, we get new phones and new laptops. In the past they used to contain lead and mercury which are harmful to the environment. The sheer volume of it is already something that puzzles everyone. How do we minimize the environmental impact while there is a cost of recovering, how do we incentivize end users, recyclers, original manufacturers and the distributors, and how do we set up such a system?
Brain City Berlin: You came to Berlin in 2015 after working in Canada, Turkey, and the USA. Why did you choose Berlin as the next step in your career?
Prof. Boyaci: One of the key aspects of Berlin is that, in its very fabric, it’s a vibrant and evolving city. It’s innovative, it hosts a lot of innovative events, start-ups and other fields and I think for me it was also the right time to make a change in my own career, to be part of an evolving, dynamic institution as opposed to the one where I have been. There is a strong intellectual community here. At ESMT, we’re very flexible and I like that structure. Berlin itself, which is international, was a great stimulus for me. It’s very cosmopolitan, it’s very lively and there is an enormous energy. People who I can relate to are spread all over the city. There is youth, change, life; there are artistic activities, entrepreneurial activities, cultural things, industry. Another part is the lifestyle of living in a city where I can just grab my bike and come to work biking. There are very cultural cities, but then you’ll suffer from another place. What I find in Berlin is the totality of it, it's extraordinary. So, it’s not just because it’s a dynamic young city. There’re arts, there’s cultural things, there’s music, there’s intellectual activities, there are social activities and if you put them together, it offers a unique combination which is very hard to find. There are only a few cities that accommodate all that variety and heterogeneity.
Brain City Berlin: Do you work together with other universities or institutions?
Prof. Boyaci: Berlin has many universities and many institutions. Some of my work relates to behavioral economics and some of the greatest behavioral economist are here. There is a lot of communication that happens across different channels, but still I haven’t covered half of the ground because it’s so diverse. There are universities and institutes that are very interdisciplinary. Every time we hire new people, they are quite positively surprised. Many don't even know that there are all these other institutes and centers within the Berlin network. I think this is the nature of Berlin, knowing that there are people I can talk to and we can interact with is a great thing, even if you don’t make use of it. It’s also a matter of time. It takes time to develop projects. People from my network live in Germany and Europe, but they have not been in Berlin. They are usually in other parts of Europe. When you’re coming from abroad and you’re international, then you have to localize slowly. It takes time.