Friday, July 31, 2009

The 27th System Dynamics Society Conference. What a gathered community of scholar-practitioners can - and should - be.

From a previous posting, readers will know that I spent the past several days at the 27th annual meeting of the System Dynamics Society, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Society now numbers about 1100 members and more than 450 were in attendance. I attended the very first Annual Meeting and had not been back since, though I have been a Society member for most of those years. Not attending at least a few of these meetings and participating more actively in the Society’s work has, I can see, been not only a failed obligation but a personal and professional loss.

As the Society’s name suggests, what sets members apart is their interest in and knowledge of System Dynamics. System Dynamics is a way of seeking to understand complex problems that emphasizes the importance of interrelated stocks (like water in a bathtub), flows in and out of stocks (like faucets and drains) and feedback loops. Examples of feedback loops include, for example the bandwagon effect that causes a politician’s popularity to soar or an economy to collapse (reinforcing loops) and homeostatic ‘thermostats’ that, for example, keep our homes and bodies at livable temperatures (stabilizing loops). Often - not always - practitioners build and/or use computer simulation models to help them better understand and remediate such problems. A book published in 1972, The Limits to Growth, described the most famous System Dynamics model, called World3. World3 raised important questions about the probability that the human race, following ‘business as usual’ practices, could live sustainably of planet earth beyond the middle of the 21st century. The book, which has been updated twice, with no significant changes in its conclusions, remains one of the best discussions of ‘sustainability’ issues ever written.

It is always hard to write about System Dynamics in a brief column or blog, because one must begin with a brief description, like the one I have attempted above, of what it is. One thing hat quickly creates a strong bond among System Dynamics Society Meeting participants is that such explanations are not necessary. Not only do participants share a common language, the fundamentally agree on the value of the approach Because the common language and shared agreement as to its value are points of departure, discussions can move quickly to matters of substance in which all can participate. This is true whether the topic is reversing global warming, managing large construction projects more efficiently, understanding the causes of terrorism or narrowing the gap between rich and poor in large urban megacenters.

Another distinction: the field is new enough so that most of its founding gurus are still active, passionately committed and were present at the meeting. Founder Jay Forrester, still vigorous and mentally incisive at age 95, rarely travels, but remains a living presence. Those who studied with him, all have ‘Jay Forrester stories’ to tell over meals and in other times of casual conversation. Two other field leaders who died prematurely and tragically, Limits to Growth principal author Donella Meadows and ‘Stella’ software developer Barry Richmond were known to many of us. References to them evoked bitter-sweet memories and stories to share with new and younger members.

Three other distinctions: the humility of field’s leaders, their active presence at the meeting at their obvious delight in mentoring newer members, old and young. Dennis Meadows was recently honored with the Club of Rome Lifetime Achievement Award and Japan for sustainability award. John Sterman holds the J.W. Forrester professorship at MIT. Peter Senge’s books on applying System Dynamics principles to create ‘learning organizations’ are widely read. The demands on his time to speak and consult are far more than he can meet and his contributions have improved the management practices of thousands. These luminaries and many others of near equal emminence could be seen throughout the five days, mingling with the crowd, taking time to mentor a new member, gathering around a poster session describing System Dynamics work of an elementary school teacher or high school junior. At the conferences ‘closing session,’ though it would continue for two additional ‘bonus days’ by popular demand, those who participated actively in organizing the event were asked to come to front of the hall. More than 100 participants gathered, and that did not include those of us who had reviewed papers for possible presentation. Had that group been included, more nearly half those in the room would have standing for acknowledgment.

I am so proud to have been accepted once again as a member of this distinctive community despite having been so long absent and done so little to contribute over many years. And, God willing , there is still time for me to contribute. At the heart of my sabbatical research project on sustainable poverty alleviation will be a System Dynamics model. I will be returning to active teaching in the field. And I intend to make attendance at future meetings of the System Dynamics Society a priority.

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