J.W. Forrester

On the night of November 16th died at 98 years Jay W. Forrester, founder of system dynamics, discipline pioneer in computer modelling of behaviour. As stated in the obituary published in the New York Times on November 17th, J.W. Forrester grew up in an isolated ranch in Nebraska, which made him “practical-minded by necessity”. He first studied electrical engineering at the University of Nebraska and then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he developed all his professional and academic career.

He studied servomechanisms and feedback control systems at MIT. During World War II he developed a device allowing the interception of aircraft radar. He installed and launch the device on board the aircraft carrier Lexington, where he served as a civil for a month.

Also within MIT, J.W. Forrester was one of the inventors of magnetic core memory, used in computers in the 70’s, before Intel began producing and commercializing RAM-based silicon, faster and smaller. We all owe him many advances in computing, discipline he left in 1956. And yet J.W. Forrester will not be remembered by any of these outstanding advances but for system dynamics discipline.

In short, system dynamics apply feedback principles to any type of interaction, including human. Thus Forrester, influenced by the incipient emergence of cybernetics and a certain structuring of systems thinking, transferred the knowledge of servomechanisms systems to more complex systems such as industrial fabric (Industrial Dynamics), cities (Urban Dynamics) or the world (World Dynamics model used by one of his doctoral students, Dennis Meadows, along with Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens to write the famous report to the club of Rome, The Limits to Growth).

System dynamics thus becomes the first tool to reflect the relationship between the parts of a system, whether physical or behavioural, and therefore giving full meaning to the notion of system, in an operational manner.

However, the aim of system dynamics is understanding the behaviour of the systems analysing, rather than predicting future behaviour. To do this it links structures with behaviour trends, but never with the aim of giving specific figures for future times. Its recent birth as a discipline makes mature in this regard, and it’s aware of the magnitude of complexity, endless source of unpredictability. It is therefore a natural ally of systemic thinking, which advocates a vision beyond the objects, looking for general patterns of behaviour over time.

J.W. Forrester dares to think beyond the traditional compartments of knowledge, and yet he does so from the genuine spirit of engineering: looking for operational solutions to the problems.

A Renaissance profile of the twentieth century, Professor Forrester has contributed decisively to spread the systemic view, essential to try to cope with the global challenges ahead. On the day of his death it is important to remember the need to establish systemic, global and long term working models, beyond the short-term and partial solutions imposed worldwide.

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