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Introduction to System Dynamics

System Dynamics is a field of study and a perspective for understanding change.

Using computer simulation and other tools, system dynamics looks at how the feedback structure of systems causes the change we observe all around us. System dynamics was developed in the middle of last century by Professor Jay W. Forrester at MIT and is used to address problems in areas ranging from ecology, to business management, economics, and psychology.

Under Forrester’s guidance, system dynamics is helping teachers make K-12 education more learner-centered, engaging, challenging and relevant to our rapidly changing world.

History

The field developed initially from the work of Jay W. Forrester.  His seminal book Industrial Dynamics (Forrester 1961) is still a significant statement of philosophy and methodology in the field.  Within ten years of its publication, the span of applications grew from corporate and industrial problems to include the management of research and development, urban stagnation and decay, commodity cycles, and the dynamics of growth in a finite world.  

System dynamics is now applied in economics, public policy, environmental studies, defense, theory-building in social science, and other areas, as well as its home field, management.  The name industrial dynamics no longer does justice to the breadth of the field, so it has become generalized to system dynamics. The modern name suggests links to other systems methodologies, but the links are weak and misleading. System dynamics emerges out of servomechanisms engineering, not general systems theory or cybernetics (Richardson 1991).

Learn more at The System Dynamics Society

A General Introduction to System Dynamics

The central concept to system dynamics is understanding how all the objects in a system interact with one another. A system can be anything from a steam engine, to a bank account, to a basketball team. The objects and people in a system interact through "feedback" loops, where a change in one variable affects other variables over time, which in turn affects the original variable, and so on.

An example of this is money in a bank account. Money in the bank earns interest, which increases the size of the account. Now that the account is larger, it earns even more interest, which adds more money to the account. This goes on and on. Another example of a simple feedback loop which we have all experienced is adjusting the water tap to reach a desired temperature. You turn the faucet, feel the temperature, and compare it to the desired temperature. You continue to adjust the water, with smaller and smaller adjustments, until you reach the desired temperature.

What system dynamics attempts to do is understand the basic structure of a system, and thus understand the behavior it can produce. Many of these systems and problems which are analyzed can be built as models on a computer. System dynamics takes advantage of the fact that a computer model can be of much greater complexity and carry out more simultaneous calculations than can the mental model of the human mind.

Two examples of important questions addressed by system dynamics models are:

  • What causes American cities to degenerate? And what can be done to revitalize these stagnant urban areas? (Forrester, Jay W. Urban Dynamics. The MIT Press, Massachusetts 1969.)
  • Can the Earth's resources support mankind, with its present economic and population growth rates, in the next millennium? What can be done to confront possible global collapse? Is a sustainable future possible? (Meadows, Donella and Meadows, Dennis and Randers, Jorgen and Behrens, William W. The Limits to Growth. Universe Books. New York: 1972. and Meadows, Donella and Meadows, Dennis and Randers, Jorgen. Beyond the Limits. Chelsea Green Publishing Company. Vermont: 1992.)

Below are several introductory documents that might help you to find out more about the field of system dynamics. They provide an overview of the development, use, and educational applicability of system dynamics.

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