Jay Forrester (1918 – 2016) and Donella Meadows (1941 – 2001)

forrester-and-meadowsSo I haven’t written about a giant for a fair while…and then, sadly, I noticed that someone who I absolutely see as a giant died a few weeks ago (16th Nov. 16), aged 98 – a bloody good innings!

His name?

Jay Forrester

Professor Forrester is known as the founder of system dynamics – the mathematical modelling (simulation) of interactions within, and outcomes from complex systems over time.

He was at the forefront of computer engineering in the 1940s and 50s, developing, amongst other things, the precursor to today’s ‘Random Access Memory’ (RAM).

He moved to MIT Sloan School of Management in 1956 and set up his hugely influential system dynamics department – whose members included Donella Meadows (see below) and Peter Senge (author of ‘The Fifth Discipline’). Forrester remained at MIT for the rest of his career.

I know about Forrester because one of his books, ‘Principles of Systems’ (1968), was recommended to me some years ago…and, after buying a copy (I recall that it cost me quite a bit), I really enjoyed my first foray into system dynamics.

I went on to buy a few more system dynamics books, got hold of the accompanying STELLA system modelling software, and played around a little bit…until it got ‘too hard’ for me 🙂 Fun times.

The interesting thing about modelling system dynamics is that it can uncover unexpected (and seemingly counter-intuitive) results. For example, Forrester was responsible for uncovering what has now been termed the ‘Bullwhip effect’ in supply chains – the unintended amplification of information signals as the distance from the source increases.

Jay Forrester wrote the following books:

  • ‘Industrial Dynamics’ (1961): Using system dynamics to model and analyse industrial business cycles;
  • ‘Urban Dynamics’ (1969): Modelling of broader social problems, to consider the effectiveness of urban policies such as low-cost housing; and
  • ‘World Dynamics’ (1971): The beginning of models looking at the complex interactions between the world’s economy, population and ecology.

He also wrote the most excellent ‘Principles of Systems’ (as referenced above), which is a primer for understanding systems and how to model them. It includes foundational systems definitions/ concepts, system flow diagrams and equations for simulations.

Donella Meadows

Forrester’s ‘World Dynamics’ thinking was used in a two-week meeting with the ‘Club of Rome’1 executive committee at MIT in 1970. They decided to support further research at MIT…which led to the publication of a famous (and highly respected) follow-up publication ‘The Limits to Growth’.

The book made headlines around the world and began a debate about the limits of Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion. Donella Meadows, a member of Forrester’s group at MIT, was the lead author.

“A woman whose pioneering [environmental and social analysis] work in the 1970s still makes front-page news. Donella Meadows was a scientist, author, teacher and farmer widely considered to be ahead of her times. She was one of the world’s foremost analysts, winner of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award and Pulitzer Prize-nominee for her long running [Global Citizens2] newspaper column. She died unexpectedly [aged 59] in 2001 as she neared completion of [her last of many book] ‘Thinking in Systems’…” (Diana Wright)

thinking-in-systems-book-coverThinking in systems: A brilliant book! Meadows began writing it in 1993 and, whilst it had been circulated informally for years, it wasn’t published until after her death.

If you like systems-thinking then it probably belongs on your shelf. My copy has plenty of underlining and smiley faces in the margin.

What’s it about? Well, it explains systems for the lay person. No mathematical models – just a scientist and writer with a great ability to communicate in words, using clear explanations and plenty of meaningful and understandable examples.

Perhaps the most profound piece within is the explanation of 12 different levers for intervening in a system, arranged according to their likely effect. They make for sober reading when you realise that many (most?) of the levers used in our world are unlikely to achieve meaningful change 😦

I found this rather nice ‘lever – load – fulcrum’ image that articulates the concept…though you’d have to read about each lever to get it3.


So, there you have it: Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows – two giants in the field of system dynamics.


1. The Club of Rome “is an organisation of individuals who share a common concern for the future of humanity and strive to make a difference. Our members are notable scientists, economists, businessmen, high level civil servants and former heads of state from around the world.” (www.clubofrome.org)

The Club of Rome conducts research and hosts debates, conferences, lectures, high-level meetings and events. The Club also publishes a limited number of peer-reviewed “Reports to the Club of Rome”, the most famous of which is “The Limits to Growth“.

2. Global Citizens Column: http://donellameadows.org/global-citizens-columns/

3. Leverage Points: If you don’t have the book then you can read about them in detail here: http://donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/