Session Report: How the System Dynamics Society Came to Be: A Collective Memoir


The Society has been engaged in a project over the past year exploring how the Society came to be. Roberta Spencer, David Andersen and John Morecroft invited field leaders and founders to reflect upon the history including: Jay Forrester, Michel Karsky, Bernard Paulré, Jack Pugh, Michael Radzicki, Jorgen Randers, George Richardson, Khalid Saeed, Eric Wolstenholme


The founding of the Society perhaps is most identified with the1983 meeting at Pine Manor College with 120 delegates. There is background to that meeting. Just the year before, in 1982, there had been a meeting where 120 candidates said “We are hereby a society and Jay Forrester is our president. We take this meeting to be the founding event.” People had to pay to be members right from the beginning; $35.00 was the fee.


Early Conferences

Some of the first System Dynamics conferences were in Europe. France has been important as were Norway, Germany and England. There is a table available on the Society website where these early conferences can be tracked as to date and location.

Early Publications

Significant publications were instrumental in spreading the message of what was then a new field of study. These publications are available in the Society archives.

D-Memos at MIT --nearly 5K technical members between 1956-2003 now available on CD.

Dynamica -- founded in the UK by Graham Winch.

System Dynamics Newsletter -- annual report of SD around the world, the System Dynamics Newsletter furnished updated bibliographies of books, theses and other documents. Jay Forrester considered these reports and updates very important and made sure they got done. Often, the work was accomplished by MIT doctoral students under Dr. Forrester’s direction.

Jorgen commented about the largesse of the field and the Society that is well demonstrated by the cooperative spirit in which the various publications came together. Dynamica was considered -- should it be independent or should British activity fall into the new internal organization? And there was discussion about the name of the organization. Eric Wolstenholme was the Dynamica editor at that time and then Eric became the founding editor of the System Dynamics Review. It was agreed by the group that we should credit Eric Wolstenholme and Graham Winch as having the breadth of vision to see it was possible to have smaller voices or one big voice. We owe them a lot because they were so gracious and diplomatic – this has been the tone of the System Dynamics Society from the very beginning.

Europe’s Importance

There was discussion and recognition of the importance of the activity in European countries. Jorgen Randers commented that while there were people at MIT and David Andersen in Albany, there was also a substantial community in Norway with 30 people. It was recalled that a community formed around Geoff Coyle in the UK, Michel Karsky in France and also an active community in Germany. But these European clusters did not expand during the 70s. It was noted that each country had its visionary.


While Europe was still important, it was becoming clear that a critical mass of students and practitioners was located in the United States, as was, of course, the field founder, Jay W. Forrester. Early leadership was taken by David Andersen, John Morecroft and Jack Pugh. A Society turning point was reached when Roberta Spencer first became (temporarily) involved in 1981 for the Rensselaerville conference; and then as Executive Director in 1997.

If one had to point to the key moment in history where the System Dynamics Society “came into being” it would have to be at the Pine Manor Conference in 1983. This seminal gathering was the place of agreement that gave birth to the first real SD Conference. Three leaders were key: David Andersen, John Morecroft and Jack Pugh

Leadership of David Andersen

John Morecroft stated that “David Andersen is more central to this than he takes credit for.” Then, David was asked to relate his early experience as a leader in the field. David said he went to Albany in 1973 and had trouble finding colleagues. He recalled the feeling of isolation and his growing need to dialogue with others in the field. David mentioned that he attended a conference in Colorado where he saw Peter Senge. At that conference, Peter observed that the IEEE was coming to Cambridge, Massachusetts the next year, and suggested they organize a section for System Dynamics. David and Peter arranged to have an IEEE post-meeting at faculty club and it was a lot of fun. So the group agreed that the coming IEEE would have its own SD stream. At the Rensselaerville Conference it was suggested that the developing Society be called “The Transnational Society.” The next year in Brussels, a vote was taken to form a Society. Then it was decided to have someone in United States representing the Society. There were three of active leaders at this time: David Andersen, John Morecroft, and Jack Pugh. It was acknowledged that the Society was very fortunate to have Jack Pugh’s involvement because he had an administrative staff with an excellent secretary. Then, at the Pine Manor Conference, there was a seminal vote to start the Society. It was originally intended to bring the resolution to start a society back to Brussels but we said “Let’s just start it here and now.” There was discussion then about locating and identifying the 30 most important people who founded the System Dynamics Society. If anyone would like to contribute this information or other comments, the Society would welcome this data.


The Society thanks David Andersen, John Morecroft, Roberta Spencer and many at the 2007 Conference for support in founding the System Dynamics Society. But so much of the credit must be given to Jack and Julie Pugh. For many years, Jack Pugh handled the finances and Julie Pugh was volunteer Executive Director. Roberta Spencer succeeded Julia Pugh and became the first Executive Director whose position was funded; sales of Beer Game boards and instructions provided seed money for the Executive Director’s position. David Andersen and George Richardson were supportive and together with Roberta Spencer they began to lead the Society.

At this time, the System Dynamics Society’s office moved from Jack and Julie’s home in Lincoln, Massachusetts to a space in the basement at MIT and then to a small office in Albany and then finally to our present office at Rockefeller College, Milne Hall at the University of Albany. There are many anecdotes about the transition. Mike Radzicki hauled a lot of boxes from Jack and Julie’s basement where they had all the archives stored. Every now and then we talk about hiring an archivist to help us organize all those boxes that are now with us in Albany; there are many valuable records here that are important to our history.

The Society owes great appreciation to Julie Pugh. She heard us say we needed an Executive Director for two years and then finally agreed to do it in exchange for having her participation at the annual Society meeting and System Dynamics Conference paid in exchange for her work all year. The Pugh family was so central to the Society’s founding that the official incorporation, and Massachusetts address, of the System Dynamics Society is still Bedford Street, Lincoln MA, the Pugh family home.

The Society’s Constitution

Jorgen Randers recalled the formal steps of the organization of the Society. David Andersen said he knew we needed to have a formal documentation of the Society including a constitution. David recounted his experience in researching other professional organizations and then using those organizational models to draft the Society’s constitution. David Andersen, John Morecroft and Jack Pugh took a draft of the founding documents to Jack Pugh’s lawyer who got everything shaped up. Jay Forrester reviewed the documents and adjusted some aspects. Jack was also helpful in the business aspects of getting a bank account and tax status. John Morecroft commented, “If David Andersen was Alfred P. Sloan of System Dynamics, Jack Pugh was everyone’s favorite uncle who helped make the ideas into legal and administrative business entities.”

Diplomacy and Cooperation

David Andersen recalled that after the Society started the founders had embark upon a diplomatic uniting of all the smaller clusters and interest groups so that the Society could truly be formed as a cohesive organization. He remembered going to the System Dynamics Newsletter, looking at the names of the different “kings” and “dukes” and reflecting upon the best way to invite them in. David decided that there was in fact one actual king – Jay Forrester – so it was he who had to send the invitation letter. David commented that soon there was a very diplomatic letter sent by Jay Forrester graciously inviting everyone. It was concluded that actually Jay Forrester was a wonderful diplomat. There are letters in the archives demonstrating that geopolitics was dispelled by a call from the Center.

The Future

In the future, one of the key issues will be the size and character of the Society. Everyone remarked upon the unique character of the System Dynamics Society as warm and intimate. Therefore, the group question was about how big the field is and so how big the Society should be. The SD community has a better defined corporate culture than many societies.

Longevity of the Society and impact on Culture

We have a 50 year history as a field and a continuing culture in the Society that has influenced the development of the field. Why? It was suggested that tenure of the leaders is very long. For example, the field founder, Jay Forrester, has been around for many active years and this creates a culture. Then, the question, is, how should this culture continue? Do we want to become bigger?

John Morecroft commented that we are a rather large group for a discipline or sub-discipline; we have grown significantly given the focus of the field. What would it mean to have 5,000 members? At the moment, 1000 is ideal -- 80 seems too small; 5,000 too big. But it was observed that the field is vibrant and growing. There are many new faces. For example, in the doctoral consortium there were many enthusiastic young faces that are moving the field forward.

The System Dynamics field and the Society have a culture characterized by openness and missionary zeal. Participants spoke of their appreciation that the field and the ready help field leaders are happy to give to newcomers, even those from other disciplines. Many people agreed with a participant who stated, “People are so willing to give of their time and to encourage newcomers.”

The System Dynamics Society has a culture of idealism that is different from other professional societies. There is something very special – maybe it has to do with the commitment of Jay Forrester who has inspired his students, maybe it relates to the commitment of the early field leaders and their continuing to be involved.

Online and DVD

There are two aspects of the System Dynamics Society. First, there is the family tree or personal aspect – much of the session recounted the fascinating early stories. Secondly, there is the professional aspect – recently, the Society has achieved several milestones that are important for external audiences. For example, going into the online mode has been an important and a very challenging step. We have made the leap to submitting papers and review process online. A lot of volunteer and student effort has been required to achieve this milestone. Bob Eberlein of Ventana Systems has been instrumental. Now, as future conferences are organized, we could approach the community like Intel in Albuquerque or smaller businesses in the area. We can now give these corporate potential sponsors our history and perspective. It was discussed by the group and decided that it would be beneficial to have a DVD with an overview of the history of the field. It was agreed by all at the session that the Society should take this moment in our own history to get out an institutional DVD, maybe 10-15 minutes long, to tell our message to potential sponsors, with exciting interviews with key people who are fortunately still available.


Action Recommendations

The session discussion raised three action areas that might strengthen the Society:

Kathleen Lusk Brooke