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The Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems
by Bob Powell, Ph.D., 05.19.03

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The Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems [PDF, 30 pages, 922kb] by Jay Forrester, founder of the field of system dynamics, explains why dealing with social systems is so difficult. coverIndeed he explains why "there is no utopia in social systems." That's why I refer to Dr. Forrester's statement as meaning that it's a "Gilda Radnor world." As she said, "There's always something." Systems thinking, as described by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline, is based on system dynamics, on its theory, methods and tools.

In the abstract to this paper, Dr. Jay Forrester (M.I.T.) explains:

"Society becomes frustrated as repeated attacks on deficiencies in social systems lead only to worse symptoms. Legislation is debated and passed with great hope, but many programs prove to be ineffective. Results are often far short of expectations. Because dynamic behavior of social systems is not understood, government programs often cause exactly the reverse of desired results.

"The field of system dynamics now can explain how such contrary results happen. Fundamental reasons cause people to misjudge behavior of social systems. Orderly processes in creating human judgment and intuition lead people to wrong decisions when faced with complex and highly interacting systems. Until we reach a much better public understanding of social systems, attempts to develop corrective programs for social troubles will continue to be disappointing.

"This paper cautions against continuing to depend on the same past approaches that have led to present feelings of frustration. New methods developed over the last 30 years will lead to a better understanding of social systems and thereby to more effective policies for guiding the future."

As leaders in our society, our government and our corporations, we desperately need this way of thinking about the world in order to overcome ideological barriers in our thinking and design policies that work. All we have to do is to look around us to see that the alternative isn't pretty.

The Creative Learning Exchange site offers information on system dynamics, specifically supporting K-12 educators in teaching this method for studying the world around us. System dynamics deals with understanding how complex systems change over time. Internal feedback loops within the structure of the system influence the entire system behavior. The paper described in this article is one of the papers included in Road Maps, a self-study guide to learning system dynamics.

Road Maps teaches the reader how to identify different kinds of systems all around us and how to model these systems using a computer. Road Maps can be a resource for both beginners and advanced system dynamics modelers, and requires no previous system dynamics knowledge and only basic math skills.


Dr. Bob PowellBob Powell works with organizations to help them meet their most important challenges and generate long-term improvement.  He has a Ph.D. in Physics from Case Western Reserve University and an MBA from Florida Institute of Technology.  Hes held positions as manager of ASIC product engineering and ASIC CAD software integration in the semiconductor industry. His other systems work includes applications to project management, leadership, barriers to long-term improvement, customer service, addiction to crisis and drugs, the workforce system, economic clusters, and the dynamics of growth and sprawl.

 


URL: http://www.childrencomefirst.com/springsfutures/bobpowell-jayforrester.shtml

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