Forrester's Visit

We had a very special guest speaker in our System Dynamics class today, the father of System Dynamics, Jay Forrester himself.

Brad did a wonderful introduction of the maestro. Forester was born on a farm in Nebraska, and developed a keen desire to invent early in life. His first invention was a screen door to electrocute flies. He is credited with the forerunner of the modern day RAM and is of course, the father of the Science of System Dynamics.

Most recently at a convention on System Dynamics held in Netherlands, just last week, Forrester was inducted into the hall of fame of IFORS. This was his first appearance since then.
Forrester began his speech saying that there was a big gap between a public discourse and the view of the real world by System Dynamics . The traditional view of problem solving seen in government, cocktail parties or anywhere else can be summed as follows:

Information about a problem-> Action-> Result

However, System Dynamics adds a feed back from Result back to Information about the problem.

What happens when we fill a glass of water from a faucet? Most would say that the glass fills with water. That's only part of the picture. We control, both the water in the faucet and the water in the glass.

We have a tendency to trust numerical data. This is only 1% of the data available. We have three databases of data. There is the mental database(What people have in their head) , the numerical database and the written database.

If we ask someone to do our job and give him the details, it will inevitably end in disaster. Along with knowledge, one needs experience and information. Thus System Dynamics incorporates all three databases.

Some may argue that this is not subjective or unscientific. System Dynamics is subjective but not unscientific. Like Einstein's theories or Ohm's law, System Dynamics is the synthesis of both Science, deep thoughts and experience.

When Forester wrote World Dynamics in 1971, he ensured that there would be no public notice. The book had 40 pages of equations.Reviews of the book appeared in the London Observer, Singapore Times, varous environment presses and student presses. There was also a 1/2 hour documentary on the book. The most notable of these was an article that appeared in Playboy. Only one letter came to Forrester from 8 Million issues of Playboy. It came from the national council of churches. It was a request from them to do a 2 1/2 day program for them.

Forrester then wrote The Limits of Growth. This book had no equations and outsold its predecessor by a factor of 10. The Dutch copy alone sold 400,000 copies. It was translated to about 40 different languages.

Mental models are not the real company, family or world. They are only unstructured assumptions- information without structure. They tell us who does what and the policies involved in the system. They cannot incorporate higher order dynamic feedback.

Computers can. System Dynamics is a coupling of the two models. In "Limits to Growth", Forrester presented the 'Model of the World'. It presented dire consequences of pollution, overpopulation and cessation of growth. It presented an almost radical view that exponential growth could not continue. If human growth were to continue, in 500 years each person would be limited to one square yard, and if humanity were to survive, people had to be shipped out of earth at the speed of light. Growth is bound to stop at some point. Starvation, AIDs, War and Revolution would serve as catalysts.

The responses to the book ranged from enthusiastic to negative. Many discredited Forrester. Most negativite responses were centered in American Economics. The responses from Corporate leaders was negative. The annual meeting of Bussiness International discussed the options humanity had. At the century club, choices for preserving humanity were discussed. Someone told Forrester,'You cannot let this out of the office'.

In 1969, John Collins, former mayor of Boston was invited to MIT. Urban Dynamics was discussed at length. The decline of the urban landscape, burning of cities and the impact of low cost housing was discussed at length. Everyone was working hard to fix the problem. System Dynamics revealed that when we don't realize the cause of a problem, our efforts to fix the problem actually end up making the problem worse.

Bigwigs from business and politics got together on Wednesdays for 8 weeks and discussed Stocks, Flows and Causal loops. The model revealed the following insight:

Initially, jobs pull people in, but the cost of housing keeps them out. When low cost housing is initiated, land fills up and construction then goes down. Jobs per person goes below normal and housing costs stay down. Now people are pulled in by housing but kept out by economic activity.This meant that the only leverage was to eliminate low cost housing.

One person told Forrester, 'I don't care if you're right or wrong. These results are unacceptable.'

In esssence, people do what they want to do. What we are faced with a social, psychological problem. Getting acquiescence is more important than modelling.

A company had fears of excess inventories. As a result they were loosing market share in a recession. They had cut back on production and customers choose to go elsewhere. No one in that company differed with the model or the suggested policies. The problem was that the company did not want a recommended reversal of two policies made by the founders of the company. People preferred troubles to do the conventional than to have trouble doing the unconventional.

Quote: I would rather try to turn around the United States than try to turn around GM.

*****To be Continued****

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