“The Work Was Counterintuitive And Controversial”

Humans unfold in mysterious ways, as what we have inside of us meets the tools that are available to us. Even we’re surprised, at least initially. And it’s heartbreaking to think of the genius that lies dormant because of circumstance.

No one born of a Midwestern farm in 1918 could have known they’d someday use computers to try to map large-scale, dynamic systems, but that’s the thumbnail narrative of Jay Forrester, MIT computer engineer and a pioneer in global modeling, who just died. What follows is a piece of his New York Time obituary written by Katie Hafner and a video from 1951 of the systems scientist and his Whirlwind Computer.

From the NYT:

Professor Forrester, who grew up on a Nebraska cattle ranch, was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s when he developed the field of system dynamics modeling to help corporations understand the long-term impact of management policies.

System dynamics, he once wrote, “uses computer simulation to take the knowledge we already have about details in the world around us and to show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do.”

It is now included in many business school curriculums, and simulation modeling has been adopted by other disciplines.

“Simulations of dynamic systems are now indispensable throughout the physical and social sciences,” said John Sterman, the Jay W. Forrester professor of management at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. “Not just in management, but also, for example, in astrophysics, biology, chemistry and climate change.”

Professor Forrester expanded his approach in the late 1960s to consider social problems, including urban decay. In his 1971 book World Dynamics, he developed global modeling, which examines population growth and industrialization in a world with finite resources.

“Jay developed the first model that treated interactions of population, the economy, natural resources, food and pollution in the context of the world as a whole,” Professor Sterman said in an interview. “The work was counterintuitive and controversial, and it launched the field of global modeling.”•

“With considerable trepidation, we undertake to interview this machine.”