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 / Fall 2005 / Issue 40(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Prophet of Unintended Consequences

“The older the person is, the more the tendency to inquire has been driven out,” Professor Forrester says. “It is much easier to bring system dynamics in at the grade-school level than it is at the graduate school, because there is much less to unlearn.”

Professor Forrester suffers repeatedly from one unintended consequence of his own work: its habit of provoking infuriated responses from liberals (for his criticisms of urban planning in the 1960s) and conservatives (for his predictions of global environmental crisis and collapse). If he was at first surprised by the clamor his works incited, over time this otherwise extremely shy, private person came to enjoy playing the provocateur. Meanwhile, Professor Forrester’s influence, particularly in business circles, is broader than his modest name recognition might suggest. Several of his former students have written bestsellers based on his work — including Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990), which posited a new kind of “learning” organization, and Dennis and Donella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens III, who wrote The Limits to Growth (Potomac Associates, 1972), which became the urtext of the global sustainability movement. Former Royal Dutch/Shell group planning coordinator Arie de Geus, market wizard Ed Seykota (inventor of the first commercialized computer trading system), and Will Wright, inventor of the computer game “Sim City,” have all named Professor Forrester as a key influence. Peter Drucker tagged him long ago, in the 1975 book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as the most “serious and knowledgeable prophet” of long-wave trends. The principles of system dynamics have been incorporated into scenario planning, wargaming, “lean production,” and supply chain management. More than a dozen universities, most prominently MIT, have business school departments devoted to the field. Project-based learning, now a popular method in elementary school education, derives directly from extensive efforts over the past 15 years by Professor Forrester and others to extend system dynamics concepts to the K–12 classroom.

“System dynamics is not biased toward any political ideology,” says John D. Sterman, a former Forrester student and professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School. “Some people apply it to help companies grow faster; others use it to promote a sustainable world in which corporations would have a lesser role.” Meanwhile, adds Professor Sterman, “it’s clear that we need a sustainable society where we don’t work ourselves to death and consume ever more junk. Jay was one of the first to reach that conclusion through systems analysis rather than an epiphany in the woods.”

Natural Complexity
People who work on farms become naturally attuned to systems, if only because their livelihood depends on the interrelationships among weather, soil, and plant and animal growth. Jay Forrester’s interest in complexity began on the cattle ranch in rural Nebraska where he grew up. (Slim and bespectacled, he resembles the male figure in the Grant Wood painting American Gothic.) “A ranch is a cross-roads of economic forces,” he later recalled, in a 1992 autobiography. “Supply and demand, changing prices and costs, and economic pressures of agriculture become a very personal, powerful, and dominating part of life.” He was a natural systems engineer; as a senior in high school, he built a 12-volt wind-driven generator, using cast-off automobile parts, that provided the first electricity on his family’s ranch. At the University of Nebraska, he earned a B.S. in electrical engineering, which was then the only academic field with a solid core in theoretical dynamics. From there he went to MIT, lured in part by the offer of a $100 per month research assistantship.

At MIT, Jay Forrester met Gordon S. Brown, who would become his mentor and closest friend. Professor Brown had founded MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory. During World War II, when Jay Forrester was there, the lab pioneered the use of feedback control systems. These systems used signals (“feedback”) that tracked the positions of rotating radar antennas and gun mounts to help moderate their movements and thus gain precision. At one point, Jay Forrester was dispatched to Pearl Harbor to repair a radar antenna control system that he had designed for the aircraft carrier Lexington. The ship left harbor with him on board, still at work, and soon encountered heavy fire from Japanese aircraft. When a direct hit severed a propeller shaft and threw the ship into a hard turn, Professor Forrester recalled, “The experience gave me a very concentrated immersion in how research and theory are related to practical end uses.”

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  1. Mark Buchanan, “Supermodels to the Rescue,” s+b, Spring 2005: An overview of the current state of computer modeling in business. Click here.
  2. Diana Fisher, Modeling Dynamic Systems: Lessons for a First Course (Isee Systems, 2005): Introduction for educators using models in the classroom.
  3. Lawrence M. Fisher, “The Paradox of Charles Handy,” s+b, Fall 2003: Jay Forrester’s article “A New Corporate Design” anticipated the ideas of visionary creative mind Charles Handy… Click here.
  4. Andrea Gabor, “Post-capitalism’s Drop-out Prophet,” s+b, Fall 2004: …and controversial post-Harvard creative mind Shoshana Zuboff. Click here.
  5. Jay Forrester, Collected Papers of Jay W. Forrester (Pegasus Communications, 1975): Jay Forrester’s most critical papers, including “A New Corporate Design” and a summary of his industrial research.
  6. Jay Forrester, Industrial Dynamics (1961), Urban Dynamics (1969), World Dynamics (1971), all from Pegasus Press: The great Forrester trilogy, still full of surprises and insights after more than 30 years.
  7. Donella H. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (Chelsea Green, 2004): The most current overview of global potential for overshoot and collapse.
  8. Keith Oliver, Dermot Shorten, and Harriet Engel, “Supply Chain Strategy: Back to Basics,” s+b, Fall 2004, The management of complex supply chain systems. Click here.
  9. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990): Business-savvy bestseller that introduces key systems thinking concepts and practice.
  10. Peter Senge et al., Schools That Learn (Doubleday, 2000): Application of system dynamics and other “learning organization” ideas to education, with an essay by Jay Forrester.
  11. John Sterman, Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World (Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 2000): The most accessible and up-to-date guide to system dynamics for business planning and development.
  12. MIT System Dynamics in Education Project: The project is designed to help educators prepare tomorrow’s complex thinkers. Click here.
  13. System Dynamics Web site: The System Dynamics Society home page, a starting point for resources and conferences. Click here.
  14. Ventana Systems Web site, Click here, and Isee Systems Web site, Click here.: Access to software for modeling systems.
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