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


The Prophet of Unintended Consequences

Overshoot versus Cornucopia
The notoriety generated by Urban Dynamics brought Professor Forrester many speaking engagements, including an appearance at the June 1970 meeting of the Club of Rome, in Bern, Switzerland. The Club of Rome was a private group, made up of about 75 corporate executives and nonprofit leaders drawn from many countries. Its members shared a concern about the interrelated predicaments they saw facing humankind: rising population, pollution, economic malaise, and social strife. They knew that all contributed to one another, but nobody was sure exactly how they were interrelated, or how to reverse the downward spiral.

The Club had been promised a $400,000 grant from the Volkswagen Foundation if they could come up with a relevant research project to solve the “problematique” (as they called it). Professor Forrester naturally proposed using computers to simulate it, but told the group they would have to visit MIT for 10 days of study, presentations, and discussion. To his surprise, they accepted and, although the grant was later cut in half, he was able to start work on a dynamic model of world interactions, such as population growth, capital flows, natural resources, pollution, and food production.

That model generated a new book, World Dynamics, which proved even more controversial than its predecessor. Most eye-opening were the unexpected consequences of exponential growth. Just as a river can accept a doubling of pollutants only so many times before its ability to flush them out to sea is exhausted, the model suggested that the world could accept only a limited number of doublings of the global human population and of industrial output before civilization would suffer. The book suggested that the planet was far closer to reaching those limits than most people then believed. The faster the level of economic growth, the more dramatic the overshoot would be, and the more sudden and devastating would be the collapse of the natural environment and its support for human life and civilization.

Although Professor Forrester believed the book had “everything necessary to guarantee no public notice,” including 40 pages of equations, its message immediately garnered worldwide attention. Reviews and press mentions ranged from the London Observer to the Singapore Times, and even a full-length article in Playboy. But this time Professor Forrester shied away from the public stage. And although he had scribbled out the initial model that attracted the Club of Rome, he left the actual assembly and fine-tuning to a team of students led by Dennis and Donella Meadows, who were in their mid-20s and just returning from a break.

“I literally came back to MIT the day Jay returned from Switzerland,” Dennis Meadows recalls. “He announced that the Club of Rome was coming over in two weeks, and since I was the only one who didn’t have five years of work to do, I became the director of the project.”

The team produced a popular adaptation called The Limits to Growth, which sold several million copies and was translated into 30 languages. It painted a stark picture of the catastrophic outcomes that the model had predicted, but it also described an alternative future, in which humanity accepted less economic growth in return for a comfortable, and endlessly sustainable, future. The book became the rallying point of a global environmental movement that has continued to gain adherents. It also gained an increasingly outspoken group of critics, who argued that the model gave short shrift to the most significant economic forces, such as the self-regulating effects of markets and prices. It did not help Professor Forrester’s standing with economists that he cited the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Almanac as sources instead of econometric data, and that most of his references were to his own previously published papers. Moreover, Professor Forrester, in his usual blunt way, had spent 15 years dismissing most orthodox economic theory as trivial.

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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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