Jay Forrester on System Dynamics

Last Tuesday in System Dynamics (yeah, I'm behind on my blogging… it happens sometimes), we had a guest lecture given by Jay Forrester. Jay, aged 90, founded the field of System Dynamics as a professor at MIT about 50 years ago. So it was pretty cool (IMHO) to get to see him speak in the small environment that our class provides[1].

The first portion of the talk he gave covered some of the work he did a little over thirty years ago looking at the dynamics behind world growth. This includes things like population, economics, sustainability, pollution, etc. The interesting and somewhat scary thing is how much the growth of the past thirty years has matched what the predictions based on the models were. Especially as one of the big messages of the model was that continued and unfettered growth is completely and entirely unsustainable. One figure that sticks out in my mind even a week later was that if population growth continues on its current trajectory then at some point (I forget the time horizon sadly), we end up needing to expand into space at a constant speed of a quarter of the speed of light to continue to fit 1 person/1 sq ft of land. The solution that he and the Club of Rome (whom he was working with) were recommending as a path was to actually make changes to help curtail growth in a natural fashion rather than having it occur as the system corrects itself, leading to a downturn in many different quantities which all directly relate to quality of life. If you want more details on this, take a look at the books World Dynamics and Limits of Growth. Or, we're continuing to build out the models in class, so I may actually do another post on that later this week.

The second part of his talk was on something that he's been working on more recently which is working towards the teaching of system dynamics thinking in K-12 education. This was pretty interesting too and raises some good points — I can easily see how it'd be easier to learn some of the dynamics way of thinking before you have as many preconceived notions that have been drilled into your head by other education. Also, one of my classmates raised the great point of how his kids love playing SimCity and games like that which are all about system dynamics modeling.

Anyway, was a great experience and I really enjoyed watching him speak. If you have the opportunity and have the least bit of interest in such subjects, it'd be worth making the effort to see it as well.

[1] At this point, our System Dynamics class is down to about 20 people in the classroom and 5-ish distance students I think. There were a couple originally in the course that have dropped it due to work load and a lot of the “usual suspects” that would be taking it who are full-time students are doing internships this summer.