Friday, November 18, 2016

Jay Forrester: the man who saw the future

Jay Wright Forrester (1918-2016) may have been the source of inspiration for Hari Seldon, a fictional character in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. In Asimov's novels, Seldon develops "pyschohistoric equations" that allow him to predict the impending collapse of the Galactic Empire. In the real world, Forrester developed "system dynamics equations" that allowed him to predict the impending collapse of the modern human civilization. The predictions were ignored by the Imperial powers of both the fictional and the real universe.

Jay Forrester, one of the great minds of the 20th century, died at 98, a few days ago. His career was long and fruitful, and we can say that his work changed the intellectual story of humankind in various ways, in particular for the role he had in the birth of the Club of Rome's report "The Limits to Growth"

In 1969, Forrester was a faculty member of the MIT when he met Aurelio Peccei in Italy. At that time, Peccei had already founded the Club of Rome, whose members were worried about the limits to the natural resources that the Earth could provide. They were trying to understand what the consequences would have been for humankind. From what Peccei wrote, it seems clear that he was seeing the situation mostly in Malthusian terms; thinking that the human population would have been growing until reaching the resource limits, and then stay there, kept in check by famines and epidemics. The main concern of Peccei and of the Club of Rome was to avoid human suffering by ensuring a fair distribution of what was available.

The encounter with Forrester changed this vision in ways that, perhaps, neither Peccei nor any of the Club members would have imagined. In the 1960s, Forrester's models were already well advanced. Based on a completely new method of calculation that Forrester had dubbed "system dynamics," the models were able to take into account how the many variables of a complex system interacted with each other and changed in time.

The result was the study that the Club of Rome commissioned to Forrester and to his research group: simulate the future of humankind over a time range of more than a century, all the way to 2100. Forrester himself prepared a complete study with the title "World Dynamics" that was published in 1971. A group of Forrester's students and coworkers prepared a more extensive study titled "The Limits to Growth" that became a true intellectual revolution in 1972.

Forrester's system dynamics provided results that proved that Malthus had been an optimist. Far from reaching the limits to growth and staying there, as Malthus had imagined, the human civilization was to overshoot the limits and keep growing, only to crash down, badly, afterward. The problem was not just that of a fair distribution of the available resources, but to avoid the collapse of the whole human civilization. The calculations showed that it was possible, but that it required stopping economic growth. That was something that nobody, then as now, couldn't even imagine to do.

You know how things went: I told the story in my book "The Limits to Growth Revisited". Forrester's work was mostly ignored, but the better known "The Limits to Growth" study was not only rejected; it was actively demonized. The legend of the "wrong predictions" of the study was created and it spread so much that it is still widely believed. Yet, the intellectual revolution that was the creation of System Dynamics never died out completely and, today, world modeling is returning. We need to study the future in these times of great uncertainty. It is difficult, unrewarding, and often leading us astray. But we must keep trying.

Perhaps of Forrester's unknown achievement was of having inspired Isaac Asimov for the character of "Hari Seldon" in the famous "Foundation" series that Asimov wrote starting in the 1950s. We have no proof that Asimov ever met Forrester or knew his work, but they both lived in Boston at the same time, so it is at least possible. Then, Hari Seldon and Jay Forrester share similar traits: both are scientists who develop powerful methods for prediction the future. Seldon develops a field known as "Psychohistory" while Forrester developed "System Dynamics." In both cases, the equations predict that civilization will undergo a collapse. In both cases, the scientists are not believed by the Imperial authorities of their times, fictional or real.

In Asimov's story, Seldon goes on to create "Foundation" a planet where the achievements of civilization are kept alive and will be used to rebuild a new civilization after that the collapse of the old one. The plan succeeds in Asimov's fictional universe. In our case, the real Earth of the 21st century, nobody seems to have been able to create a safe haven for the achievements of civilization that we can use after the collapse. Seeing how things stand, maybe it is the only hope left?

But, maybe, Asimov wasn't directly inspired by Forrester for his Hari Seldon. Maybe he was just inspired by the archetype of the wise man that, in human history, has been played by people such as Merlin, Laozi, Kong Fuzi, Prince Gautama, Socrates, and many others. Perhaps Jay Forrester deserves to be listed among these wise men of old. Perhaps, the wisdom that Forrester brought to us will come handy in the difficult future that awaits us.

Forrester's achievements are many besides those of World Modeling. He developed a completely new magnetic computer memory that became the world standard, he developed a complete programming language (called "dynamo"), he is the originator of several fundamental ideas in system management: the "bullwhip effect," the concept of "Urban Dynamics"; of "Industrial Dynamics" of the "leverage points" in complex systems, and much more. A true genius of our times. 


  1. "A planet where the achievements of civilization are kept alive...." Read Lost Horizon, by James Hilton. He, too, was a little off in his timing, but the need is more aching now than when he wrote it. Harpsichord music.... Mozart.... Chinese porcelain.... --The King James Bible....: "Mine eye, mine eye runneth down with water."

  2. I studied this in college in the late 70s. We used NDTRAN as a programming language and I just loved the way it worked with feedback loops, etc. and felt it should have lots of applications. I haven't really seen anything like it since then.

    I quickly checked the link on World Modeling - do you know what software they are using?

  3. @ Walt Garage

    The 'The Limits To Growth' team used a programming language called DYNAMO in the 70s. Later on, they dropped it in favour of another modelling language they found more convenient, called STELLA. As far as I know, STELLA is still the programming language used by the team to implement their models.

    As for the MEDEAS project, it is based on a model developed at the University of Valladolid, called WoLiM (which stands for World Limit Model), plus a few other more "conventional" tools (see for a list of these tools). It seems WoLiM relies on Forrester diagrams (see "WoLiM Technical Report" referenced in ) but it also seems it is not implemented using a dynamic-systems-oriented language like DYNAMO or STELLA, as the MEDEAS project says they intend to publish their whole programming stuff as Python code.

  4. It's also worth pointing out that this is the same Jay Forrester who invented core memory, which drove the creation of the modern computer. He invented core as part of the Whirlwind project, the first "real time" system. Whirlwind would go on to drive the SAGE system, the first large-scale computer network.

  5. >nobody seems to have been able to create a safe haven for the achievements of civilization that we can use after the collapse

    That's what they want you to think. Such a place exists, at galaxy's end... :-)

  6. Because our university computer center refused to allow the DYNAMO compiler on the computer system, I had to write a DYNAMO emulator in FORTRAN in order to implement the model in the World Dynamics book in late 1970. As a consequence, I discovered something interesting about that particular model, which I only discussed with very few people. Incidentally, the general behavior of such models can be extremely sensitive to seemingly trivial changes in certain auxiliary functions. Hari Selden was one of my heroes when I was a teenager.

    1. The Trilogy was one of my favorite reading excursions, back in high school. I think it may be time for me to revisit it with older eyes.

    2. The Foundation Trilogy was one of the most memorable Sci-Fi reading experiences of my high school years... time to revisit it, I think, with older eyes and a broader perspective than I had then.

  7. I always though the first Foundation stories were published in the early 1940s. And Seldon and psychohistory were already there (not as developed as in later books, but the idea was clearly defined).

    In 1942 Jay Forrester was 24 and he only got his MS in 1945.

    1. The first "Foundation" novel was published in 1951, but it is true that Asimov published short stories on the concept before that. So, it may very well be that Asimov conceived the character of Hari Seldon at a time when Forrester was still a rookie. Ideas float in the air, people just collect them



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)