His pioneering work in digital computer technology gave the world reliable random-access magnetic-core memory that revolutionized computer speed and power. Nevertheless, Jay Forrester says his work today is “much more important.”
“In 1956, I thought the pioneering days of computer innovation were pretty much over,” Forrester said. “The biggest multiple in improvements in computer speed, reliability, and logical design were from 1946 to ’56. Rapid development has continued, but the big changes were in the first decade. I was ready for something new.” So, he left the computer technology field and began the development of system dynamics.
NEW LOOK AT THE FUTURE
“System dynamics is a powerful new look into the nature of systems. In technology we designed equipment. Now we think of designing the future,” Forrester said. “The field will be unfolding for at least another 50 years. The big issues are understanding environmental change, economic behavior, and the basis of a new kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade education.”
System dynamics uses computer simulation models to show why certain behaviors thought to resolve a problem often bring negative results. A system dynamics simulation analysis often shows that local goals conflict with goals of the larger system, that short-term positive outcomes often lead to unsatisfactory long-term results, and that people often intervene in systems where there is little leverage and thus little effect.
In the K-12 system dynamics classroom, students examine real-world projects or issues. Teachers act as advisors to encourage students on projects that often lie outside the teacher’s own experience. “This is a pioneering, under-the-radar, grassroots education experiment that has been going on in some schools since the 1970s. We are seeing dramatic results in some schools,” said Forrester.
“It is a complete inversion of the school culture. In present traditional schools, students, when assigned a problem, can assume they’ve been taught what they need to deal with it. In the real world, do you find that true? In ideal system dynamics schools, students see a problem—maybe it is in school, family, or community—and they begin to work on it; why it is happening, what to do about it, what must they learn to make progress,” he said.
Students in one such class even worked with a Chinese government official to understand the future disproportionately high fraction of aged people as a consequence of the one-childper- family rule.
As part of Forrester’s system dynamics research, he has studied the behavior of economic systems and the causes of major depressions. His studies show that the current economy is the result of easy past decisions that now have negative impacts.
“Today’s economy is the consequence of excess credit by the Federal Reserve over several decades. Nevertheless, the Federal Reserve probably could not have tightened credit without producing an uproar from all political sectors wanting easy money. I don’t think they had the political power to go against public demands,” he said.
“In contrast, an effective K-12 educational system could create a public that would support unpopular policies to protect the long-term well-being of the country. We should have had tight money for 30 years prior to now. That’s the opposite of what we had. Now there is no quick fix. It will take 10 to 15 years to get out of the present imbalances,” he said.
“Most people are guessing about what to do. Present actions are mostly aimed at alleviating immediate pressures. However, one characteristic of a social system is that what is good in the short run is almost always bad in the long run,” he said.
NECESSITY AS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
Forrester’s original work in computer design grew out of a basic need for very fast, real-time calculation. It started during World War II when he worked with Gordon Brown creating servomechanisms for the control of radar antennas and gun mounts. The work ran the gamut from mathematical theory to the operating field. He even went to Pearl Harbor in 1943 to fix some experimental units he had designed for a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington.
As the war ended, he began building an aircraft flight simulator. He and his associate, Robert Everett, knew the analog calculating machines then available were not up to the performance needed. So they developed a real-time electronic digital computer replacing the unreliable electrostatic tubes with something different—random-access magnetic-core memory (RAM). It was much more reliable and much faster than what had been available. The new machine was called Whirlwind, the forefather of today’s computers.
“The invention of magnetic-core RAM was a pure case of necessity being the mother of invention,” said Forrester. “I was employing several hundred engineers who needed highly reliable memory for military systems and there was no memory system that was suitable. I felt we had to have something better. When I discovered the possibility of rectangular magnetic hysteresis- loop materials, it all came together in something practical.”
Forrester’s childhood experiences on his parents’ ranch greatly influenced his actions and ideas later in life and still today. On the ranch, he had to get his hands dirty and do things himself. One of the projects he developed there as a high-school senior is now suddenly very popular: wind power. There was no electricity on the ranch, and Forrester much preferred working on mechanical things to taking care of cattle. So, he built a winddriven electrical generator.
“Wind is one of the solutions now to our oil dependency, but not the only solution. Because wind is erratic, we do not yet have a satisfactory way of storing large amounts of energy when the wind is blowing, for use when the wind is calm,” he said.
“Students need to get into the real world and do things with their hands. Learn by doing,” as he did by working on the ranch, said Forrester. “Many of today’s students are out of touch with the real world. I once taught a class at MIT on dynamics of physical and social systems. I started by asking students to explain the feedback system that adjusts the level of water in a toilet tank. I got esoteric answers like it depended on the size of water mains in the street and how far away was the water reservoir. When I inquired, I found that not one of the 30 students had ever looked inside a toilet tank.”
He also is not happy with the “No child left behind” program in K-12 schools. “There is too much emphasis on math and science being required for everyone. Some students should go into art, music, journalism— activities that don’t require high concentration in math and science,” he said.
“When you force everyone into math and science, it lowers the quality of teaching toward the average and the best students for math and science are held back. Also, learning should be fun and exciting and not driven by the fear and penalties of the present examination procedures.”
The challenge today, said Forrester, is better and effective understanding of social, political, and economic systems. “We can’t expect a more insightful public without bringing students out of high school with a good grasp of the dynamic nature of the world around them.”