2014 Presidential Address
by Edward G. Anderson
July 21, 2014 - Delft, Netherlands
My fellow System Dynamicists:
Thank you for the opportunity to serve as the President of the System Dynamics Society. It is an honor to follow in the footsteps of so many great system dynamicists, beginning with Jay Forrester himself. As is customary, it is now my daunting and humbling task to make some comments to you with respect to the current state of the System Dynamics Society and its future.
I would like to begin by thanking the many people who make the Society work. Beginning with the past and future presidents who advise me; the Vice Presidents and Assistant Vice Presidents who spearhead our Society’s numerous efforts; the Policy Council Members who advise us; the SIG and Chapter officers who drive forward our goals at a more local level, and last, but far from least, Ms. Roberta Spencer and the Home Office, whose many and myriad efforts keep the engine that is the Society running. Without these talented leaders, the Society would surely grind to a sudden, jarring, and most painful halt.
Taken together, these trends could be interpreted somewhat negatively. However, I prefer to look at them as an opportunity. So long as students join the Society, we know that the number of people interested in the field of System Dynamics must ultimately increase. Hence, I am not worried that the field is going to wither away and die. However, the Society, that is another issue.
The Society represents a priceless asset for the field of System Dynamics. Its efforts, taken as a whole, have created a body of knowledge that is the source of much of the rigor that many other fields lack, particularly with respect to modeling and understanding the behavior of social systems. The Society not only provides an outlet for much of our work, it also improves that work by allowing us as individuals to build upon this body of knowledge as well as providing a venue for constructive peer criticism. Moreover, the Society provides the hub of a network that keeps system dynamicists in contact with one another. If there is one thing that social network theory has taught us, it is that social networks, and the hubs that hold them together, decisively influence a social movement’s success.
What has been done so far
However, all is not gloom and doom. Far from it. Over the past several years, the Society has taken a number of steps to rectify this problem. The results have not shown up yet in the Society’s membership numbers, but as we all know, there is a long delay between any intervention in a complex social system and its results.
Among the concrete actions the Society has already taken.
The Future: What we need to do
While these are substantial accomplishments, we must now consider the future. I am going to suggest three directions that we should consider.
Modeling and Data First, modeling and data: Up to this point, every step the Society has taken is a “no-brainer,” or rather a “no-modeler” in that we have been working without a fully developed and calibrated System Dynamics model to guide our organization. This seems problematic given that any self-respecting system dynamicist would probably never consult with even the local “dog-catcher” without first building a model. And, indeed, there are a number of efforts in progress to address this problem. In particular, George Richardson and Jack Homer are presenting their models addressing the growth of the field at this conference. Further, our strategy development initiative laid out a plausible structure for the field with placeholders for a number of issues on which we have no data. This, however, brings up a crucial issue. While we have good data about some aspects of the Society, there are some critical data that we are missing. Beyond that, we know almost nothing of the nine-tenths of the field that is the metaphorical submerged iceberg. Even the nine-tenths is a figurative number pulled out of a hat. We honestly do not know if the Society represents 75% of the active system dynamicists in the world, 50%, or only 5%.
The Society is currently developing surveys to address this problem. However, their value will only be as good as the number of completed surveys we get back. If I may ask a quick couple of questions:
You see the problem. Hence, as your first action item: When you receive these surveys from the Society, fill them out and return them! Otherwise, we will run a serious risk of “garbage-in-garbage-out” in our efforts to strengthen both the Society and the field.
Mentoring A second area is mentoring. While the Society is a wonderful support to us as individual modelers for the reasons I have just described, you also need support at the local level. While we are still admittedly somewhat data-starved, George Richardson’s model points to mentoring, and particularly peer mentoring, as a potential leverage point. This accords with some advice by Professor James Orlin at MIT given to myself and a few of my fellow doctoral students. He said, “Look around you. These are your friends. Work with them, even after you graduate. You cannot make it in this field by yourself.” While Professor Orlin was talking about academia, I think his advice applies to all system dynamicists as well. There just are not that many system dynamicists in the world. We need friends to survive.
Now, while this is a nice example, what can you do? Well, for one thing, you are here at the Conference, surrounded by literally hundreds of your colleagues in System Dynamics. Meet them. More importantly, talk to them, and build relationships with them. Many of us work alone within our organizations. However, virtual meeting software, like Skype and Google Hangout, is a wonderful thing. You don’t have to do System Dynamics alone anymore. Find those you share common interests with at this meeting, perhaps through your SIG, and start having regular meetings to support each other and bounce ideas off of each other. System Dynamics is often a lonely profession, but with virtual peer mentoring, we can make it more of a team sport.
However, again this is not so much a problem to be solved as an opportunity to be grasped. While there has been much argument in the Society over the value of the Systems Thinking movement in the 1990s, it no doubt increased the awareness of System Dynamics and brought many people into the field. I myself was minding my business at the Ford Motor Company one fine spring day in 1991 when my boss came into my office and said, “Ed, there’s a course on something called Systems Thinking run by a guy named Senge at MIT that we need you to go to.” Twenty-three years later, I find myself standing here.
I believe there is a similar opportunity with respect to complex systems and specifically agent-based modeling. Byrne and Callaghan, acknowledged leaders in the field of complexity theory, in their book Complexity Theory and Social Science: The State of the Art, make the following critique.
In general, [agent-based models] assert constantly micro-foundations of social reality in a wholly atemporal fashion…[In much of agent-based modeling], not only is there no sense…of the problem of establishing some sort of isomorphism between the mode of the operation of the model, how the model produces the given result, and reality…but there isn’t even an acknowledgement that models may generate outcomes which do not correspond to reality in any meaningful sense…This beggars belief.3
These issues are not restricted solely to agent-based modeling in the social sciences, but are common to the entire huge field of complex systems in the social sciences. I submit to you that we in System Dynamics have the methodology to exactly address the issues behind Byrne and Callaghan’s critique. As my colleague, Reuben McDaniel, a highly respected scholar who applies complex systems theory to healthcare delivery, recently said to me, “I can tell where a system is now, and I can even describe a stable equilibrium where I would like it to be, but I cannot tell you the dynamics of how we get from here to there. I think you could help me with that.” This past year alone, I have been approached by several complex systems theorists and two agent-based modeling projects seeking my advice as a system dynamicist on their research. I am vigorously taking those opportunities, and I would suggest, when the opportunity presents itself, which it will, that you do so as well.
At a more organized level, we need to make our presence felt as a field, not just individuals, at gatherings other than the ISDC. System dynamicists have a long-established foothold in the Hawaiian Conference on Complex Social Systems. I would encourage you to attend that and similar conferences, present your work, and make some friends among the complex systems theorists. Similarly, the Business SIG is looking into reviving efforts by several system dynamicists over the years to create a permanent presence at such conferences as the Winter Simulation Conference, which is probably the biggest computer simulation conference in North America. While that conference tends to focus on Discrete Event Simulation and, more recently, agent-based models, they are always eager to have a larger System Dynamics presence. Moreover, it is heavily attended by practitioners, including potential clients giving us great scope to increase awareness of SD. If you are interested in participating in the Winter Simulations Conference, please contact Seth Cordes and the Business SIG or feel free to speak with me and I will put you in touch.
In short, knowledge is not a zero-sum game. If you have an opportunity to participate in a complex systems or agent-based modeling effort, take it, and use it as a chance to increase awareness of the power of System Dynamics among those who could really benefit from it.
To recap, I have suggested that we as a Society gather data, increase our mentoring in the Society, and make connections with other fields that are “fellow travelers” to System Dynamics. As I say this, however, I can hear in the back of the room, “Ed, you’ve laid out all these action items. Some are what the Society will do, but most of them involve my getting out there and putting forth some individual effort.” And you would be correct in this assessment. At the end of the day, we are a society of volunteers, from the President on down. All our achievements as a Society, all of the good that we do, are the result of pure volunteerism. As van Gogh said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Without your individual efforts, no matter how seemingly small, we as a society are nothing.
Thank you for your attention.
1Forrester, J. W. (2007). System Dynamics—the next fifty years. System Dynamics Review, 23(2-3), 359-370.
2Rockefeller College News Magazine, Spring 2014, p. 8.
3Byrne, D. and G. Callaghan (2014). Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The State of the Art, p. 169.