Jay Forrester

Developed the computer model for the Club Of Rome which led to the Limits To Growth report. (He later refined this for his WorldDynamics book.) The fact that we haven't had the Big Die Off yet has not improved the reputation of Systems Thinking.


Author of WorldDynamics, UrbanDynamics

Died 2016.

Profile (2005) of Jay Forrester.

  • Professor Forrester postulated that most industrial activity could be represented by five Network-s - materials, orders, money, capital equipment, and personnel - with a sixth, the information network, functioning as the connecting tissue between the other five. The complex interactions among the different networks, each of which has its own set of stocks and flows, and the FeedBack delays inherent in the information network make true cause and effect difficult to gauge.

  • After four months, Professor Forrester had the basis for a new book, UrbanDynamics (Urban Planning), with a startling assertion: The harder a policymaker tried to relieve Poverty, the more that poverty would increase. Low-cost housing, intended to revive inner cities, actually crowded out industry that might have created jobs, while attracting underemployed people and concentrating them in decaying neighborhoods that made it harder for them to break out of the vicious cycle they were in. The model supported arguments for fostering industrial expansion before building low-cost housing, and thus giving cities room to expand their economies naturally.

  • Typical was a negative review of The Limits To Growth in the New York Times, written by Peter Passell, a Columbia University economist, and two Harvard University economists named MarcRoberts and LeonardRoss. The Limits to Growth, they said, was "empty and misleading," based on an "intellectual Rube Goldberg device," full of "arbitrary conclusions that (had) the ring of science," but were really "less than Pseudo-Science." Dr. Passell, now editor of the Milken Institute Review, hasn't softened his opinion, though he allows there is a place in the world for modeling. "Simulation is always a problem," he says. "You've got to be very disciplined so you understand what the model is sensitive to. Professor Forrester and that crowd were oblivious to the reductiveness of their process."

  • But it (Peter Senge's Fifth Discipline) also makes a distinction that Professor Forrester himself rejects: between "System Dynamics," which requires constructing and testing electronic simulations, and "Systems Thinking," which draws people into conversation to consider the same types of systemic situations in depth... "The trouble with systems thinking," Forrester says, "is it allows you to misjudge a system. You have this high-order, nonlinear, dynamic system in front of you as a diagram on the page. You presume you can understand its behavior by looking at it, and there's simply nobody who can do that."

  • Professor Forrester's work has also gained exposure through the development of graphic software programs that allow people without Ph.D.-level math skills to create sophisticated models. Vensim, produced by Robert Eberlein of VentanaSystems Inc. of Harvard, Mass., is a powerful tool used today by systems modelers in business and graduate schools, including Professor Forrester himself. Stella, created by the late Barry Richmond of ISeeSystems, of Lebanon, N.H., brings system dynamics modeling to the high school classroom.

  • Here, in the basement, Professor Forrester works on his most ambitious computer model: a general theory of economic behavior (Economics), which he began to develop 25 years ago. It incorporates the economic long-wave theory (Wave Theory) articulated by Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev in 1926, discredited in the 1970s, and just now making a comeback in economic circles... To Professor Forrester, the long wave is generated by the same sort of production shortages and gluts in capital goods that he observed in the early 1960s with toasters and refrigerators, but played out on a much longer time scale.

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