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System Dynamics Pioneer: Jay W. Forrester


Jay Forrester Jay W. Forrester 1918-2016
Germeshausen Professor Emeritus of Management at MIT

Forrester, who invented random-access magnetic-core memory during the first wave of modern digital computers, also pioneered the field of system dynamics -- analysis of the behavior of systems. He pursued three main interests based on system dynamics: the System Dynamics National Model, which generates the major observed modes of economic behavior; a new management education that is based on the inherent, dynamic complexity of all the related parts of a corporation and that brings them into a unified system; and system dynamics as a methodology for giving cohesion, meaning, and motivation to pre-college education.

Jay W. Forrester was the Germeshausen Professor Emeritus and Senior Lecturer at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He began his career as an electrical engineer working on servomechanisms and large-scale digital computers. While Director of the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory from 1946 to 1951, he was responsible for the design and construction of Whirlwind I, one of the first high-speed digital computers.

In 1956, Professor Forrester started the System Dynamics Group at the Sloan School and with it, the field of system dynamics. He was also the director of the System Dynamics in Education Project (SDEP), which developed ways to use system dynamics and computer modeling as a foundation for a new kind of kindergarten through 12th grade education. The SDEP project at MIT wrote Road Maps which is a guide to learning system dynamics.

As Dr. Forrester's career progressed, he realized that the real power of system dynamics would only be realized if students were exposed to it from an early age.  In 1991 he and John Bemis founded the Creative Learning Exchange in order to support and encourage the use of system dynamics and learner-centered learning in K-12 education.  He continued to encourage and support the K-12 initiative for the rest of his life. He was the guiding light for the work that is being done in K-12 education.

Click to see a more detailed biography of Jay W. Forrester (D-3110-14).

Papers by Prof. Jay Forrester available online:

  • System Dynamics and Learner-Centered-Learning in Kindergarten through 12th Grade Education (D-4337)
    Presents views on how system dynamics may improve classroom learning.

  • Comments on Future of K-12 Education (D-4900-1)
    There is a fundamentally different kind of pre-college education that the author, along with many others, has been pioneering for more than twenty years. The demonstration phase is now completed and it is time to launch a major implementation program to expand into a growing number of schools. This is a long-range and difficult undertaking but necessary if K-12 schools are to produce citizens who are prepared for the challenges of the future.

  • System Dynamics: Quotations from K-12 Teachers (D-4893)
    This paper discusses the most recent frontier in system dynamics and its use as a foundation underlying a dramatically different kind of education in kindergarten through 12th grade.

  • Some Basic Concepts in System Dynamics (D-4894)
    In its full development, system dynamics is a discipline with the scope of science, education, law, engineering, or medicine. On the other hand, it is becoming clear that teachers in ordinary K-12 schools can make enough progress in two or three years to achieve major improvement in students’ thinking, self reliance, and enthusiasm for learning.This paper gives a glimpse of the principles and concepts that make up an understanding of complex social and economic systems.

  • Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century (D-4895-1)
    Explains the advantages of a system dynamics education for the future.

  • Notes on history and future of system dynamics in K-12 education (D-4897)
    With these notes, Jay Forrester hopes to encourage discussion about participating in a daring, difficult, but highly promising kind of K-12 education that is radically different from what is now common.

  • System Dynamics and the Lessons of 35 Years (D-4224-4)

  • The Beginning of System Dynamics (D-4165-1)
    Provides a personal point of view about the development of system dynamics

  • System Dynamics - The Next Fifty Years (D-4892)
    Fifty years after its creation, Professor Forrester reviews the current status of the field of system dynamics and assesses prospects for the next fifty. Forrester focuses on the challenges the field must face if it is to realize its potential.

  • Designing the Future (D-4726)
    English version of the paper Prof. Jay Forrester presented at the University of Seville on December 15th, 1998. This paper talks about how Dr. Forrester believes system dynamics will help in understanding the many complex systems in our society.

  • Diseöando El Futuro (D-4808)
    Spanish translation of the paper Prof. Jay Forrester presented at the University of Seville on December 15th, 1998. This paper talks about how Dr. Forrester believes system dynamics will help in understanding the many complex systems in our society.

  • Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems (D-4468-2)
    A paper introducing the concepts and applications of system dynamics. Forrester discusses social policies and their derivation from incomplete understandings of complex systems. Also appears as Chapter 14, pages 211-244, in author's Collected Papers 1975; and as Chapter 1, pages 3-30, in Toward Global Equilibrium: Collected Papers, 1973. Also in Road Maps 1.

  • System Dynamics: the Foundation Under Systems Thinking (D-4902)
    This paper discusses system dynamics as a solid systems core in K-12 schools. It originally appeared in Reflection, Journal of the Society for Organizational Learning, Vol.1, No. 3, Spring 2000, published by the MIT Press, as a response to Peter M. Senge's article in the same issue entitled "Systems Change in Education". Revised 12/2010.

Over the years, the CLE has been fortunate enough to have gathered a variety of videos with Jay W. Forrester. These videos touch on climate change, the history of system dynamics and more.

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