President's Address  
to the System Dynamics Society 
1999 System Dynamics Conference, Wellington, New Zealand

Jack Pugh

I would like to express the society’s appreciation to Bob Cavana, Margaret Stevenson-Wright, Joy Candlish, and Roberta Spencer and his team for putting on the 17th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society in Wellington. Also, I would like to thank Jac Vennix for putting this program together. Having been centrally involved in 4 previous conferences I know the magnitude of the effort.

This past year the System Dynamics Society has been looking at its goals and priorities. As this audience includes many who are not members of the System Dynamics Society, I will review the background and avoid details so that all may understand. The society was formed 13 years ago to address two problems that a professional society is expected to manage – supporting a refereed journal and sponsoring an annual conference. Before the society was formed conferences were organized on a catch as catch can basis with no one to maintain mailing lists or to designate a good host. Further, young faculty members were having difficulty publishing in journals to achieve promotions. Many journals did not recognize systems as something that might be the basis of a solid profession article. While we also identified other goals that most professional societies embrace, these were our top priorities.

Today those goals have been met and the society’s financial position is strong enough to allow us to review and revise our priorities including adopting priorities that may cost some money. Society members read in “The President’s Newsletter” an invitation to participate in this discussion. The call for ideas was repeated on the System Dynamics List Serve, from which I received 22 responses. I shall review these responses in more detail in the members meeting at the end of the conference. Here, I will discuss the idea receiving the most discussion and I think is the most important.

Broadly, the issue is education.

I cannot speak for Europe or Asia, but college education in System Dynamics has had an uneven history in the United States. Dartmouth no longer teaches it, but Worcester Poly has added an undergraduate degree in System Dynamics. Even MIT has had its ups and downs.

Laying out a System Dynamics curriculum would help not only educational institutions evaluate what is necessary to add System Dynamics to their catalogue, but also define better what we mean by System Dynamics. Some business schools professors give the impression that two or three lectures on SD covers all that one needs to know about the subject.

Additionally, offering System Dynamics over the internet would make it available to those who cannot or do not wish to undertake a System Dynamics education at one of the few colleges offering it.

Actually, System Dynamics is already available on the internet. As many of you know, Jay Forrester has been providing this in two forms for K-12 teachers for several years: The Guided Study Program in System Dynamics and the Road Maps. The guided Study Program has a fairly stiff fee of $5,000 ($500 for school teachers and administrators) plus 15 hours of study per week, but does provided individual tutors. The Road Maps can be down loaded free and include questions and answers, but there is no additional help. Both of these are aimed at K-12 teachers, which means the examples are targeted at children’s interests. The response that Jay reports is excellent. Jay has also organized the Creative Learning Exchange to support and promote this effort at the K-12 level. Its regular newsletter and occasional conferences help teachers exchange ideas and confirm their efforts to master the field.

Similar materials directed at industry and government would be more attractive to such an audience. The society could prepare similar materials with different examples and perhaps support it with a staff of undergraduates also studying SD at some college (as Jay does). But such as endeavor would require a similar effort and devotion that Jay, Nan Lux, and Lees Stuntz are putting into the K-12 program.

One controversy also emerged from this discussion of new priorities. I started it by suggesting 8 activities that the society might undertake. This list was intended to clarify members understanding of what I expected. Mentioned were:

promoting all forms of systems thinking broadly, and
defending SD against the onslaught of incompetent consultants.

Jay Forrester replied: “These two are inconsistent with one another.  Systems thinking, without a solid basis in system dynamics and simulation, can lead to self-appointed experts who may degrade the image of the System Dynamics Society.  I believe that the Society should focus on a solid, fundamental understanding of systems and not try to increase the numbers of members faster than that understanding can be achieved.   We should leave systems thinking and learning environments to those who are satisfied with a softer understanding of systems, and try to keep a clear separation of the Society from activities that do not reach, or even aspire to, the standards that the Society should be promoting.   Of course, there may be many different definitions and intents when people refer to "systems thinking" in this discussion; my rather negative comments refer to what I see in many activities where systems thinking means thinking about systems, talking about systems, and believing that systems are important, but without any deep understanding of systems; such a treatment of systems will often lead to the wrong conclusions.  Indeed, systems thinking should be a result of a system dynamics understanding. However, when taken alone, systems thinking amounts to trying to solve high-order nonlinear feedback systems by intuition; that can not be done, but people will believe they can, if the intuitive solutions are not tested against actual modeling.” End Quote.

Several other members disagreed with Jay’s position both supporting the use of learning environments and being more open to system thinking.

My own position is that, while the dangers that Jay identifies are real, we should be open to new tools and people that promote system understanding. Standing aloof or even damning their efforts might leave us in the dust rather than them. Alternatively, showing them the value of good model construction, testing, and exploration should help both groups.

I don’t expect that this controversy will ever go away, but I do not feel that will be bad. The only risk I see is allowing sloppy, non-model work to be labeled as System Dynamics.

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