I was reminded again, recently, of Jay Forrester’s aspiration for the future of the world. Forrester is a professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his approach to system dynamics has inspired a generation of educators and business thinkers. (Larry Fisher’s s+b profile of him, “The Prophet of Unintended Consequences,” is still probably the best introduction to his life and work.) Forrester’s thesis is that the world is governed by systems so complex—not just in the number of elements that interrelate, but especially in the way they interrelate over time—that the ordinary forms of education no longer suffice, especially for leaders in business and the public sector. Consider, for example, the decisions faced by financial regulators: How much to intervene? How tight or loose should the flow of money be? Which parts of the financial system are too far out of control, and how can you tell?
Forrester argues that leaders need to understand the dynamics of acceleration and equilibrium, the ways that stocks and flows interrelate, and the pressures that build to a tipping point (though he would probably never call it that). A merely intuitive understanding is insufficient. It’s not enough to know that compound interest builds over time or that some aspects of the economy accelerate more rapidly than others.
For instance, sooner or later, all growth must come to an end. But how can you see in advance that the end is approaching? If you’re investing in new product launches and each one is less successful than the one before, are you reaching the end or experiencing a temporary setback? How can we tell which warnings of climate change to take seriously, and on which time frame, when the interrelationships among El Niño and the storage capacity of large-scale carbon sinks like the ocean still aren’t fully understood? How do we know whether austerity or Keynesian investment will be the better course, without a sharper idea of how much capital a government can safely store away in the form of public debt?
To really grasp the dynamics—or the similar dynamics of technological disruption, climate change, business competition, or any complex system—you need to be able to simulate: to create models of behavior, understand the theories underlying those models by creating your own formulas, and then test the ways those theories interact over time.
Camp Snowball is a weeklong retreat and workshop for educators, and its purpose is to instill and deepen that kind of thinking and practice, so that educators can teach the next generation of students. It’s coming up—a few weeks from now, in Winston-Salem, N.C. The camp is a place to learn systems models, to understand the systems sensibility, and then be able to teach others that same kind of awareness. It’s an exciting place to be if you’re an educator; it’s simultaneously on the leading edge of understanding, with relevance to all grade levels and all fields of study, and a place of extraordinary depth.
Forrester won’t be there—he’s in his mid-90s now. But this approach to thinking will be represented by some of the staff members of Camp Snowball, including Fifth Discipline author Peter Senge and many of the educators who have pioneered new approaches to systems thinking in the classroom.
For me, the relevance of systems thinking is bound up in a question: How much can we trust the intuitive understanding of leaders to allow them to “muddle through” to the right solution? Will they find the way by the skin of their teeth, as Thornton Wilder put it? Or have the capabilities of technology pushed humanity past a tipping point, where the brilliance of the well trained is no longer sufficient? Forrester’s approach tries for an end run around this problem. He posits that there’s a better form of wisdom. That people can gain that wisdom only by becoming one with the machine, by integrating a computer-based understanding of large complex systems into the way they practice decision making. And that educators are the people who can save the world, by instilling this form of practice into the habits of the next generation. That’s why Camp Snowball is interesting—it evokes a community of educators for whom, despite everything, this type of systems understanding is taking hold.