This semester I had the privilege to take a course co-taught by MIT Professor John Sterman, the widely recognized world leader of Systems Dynamics (SD). Up until February I had no idea what SD was. During my time at LMU I took a graduate course on Systems Thinking (ST) and how to map our minds around some subproblem of large sociotechnical systems, but not really how to “map” the problem and its main drivers in a comprehensive interconnected web. This formal mapping of feedback loops and cause/effect chains that constitute a given problem is what really gives ST an edge, and what the field of SD is all about.
SD actually takes the maps and diagrams even further by simulating the varying stocks and flows of a system through time, using SD-specific software and whatever past cause/effect data is available. Calculus brings these maps to life, and allows prediction of trends into the future… but only as accurately the map or model represents the actual system or problem. This simple fact is what I find so humbling about SD: that in the process of trying to comprehensively understand a problem, we expose our ignorance, and realize that our models can only go so far with reasonable precision. One comes to the realization that our mental models will always be deficient, and that the world and society’s interaction within it is far more complex than we realize.
In one of the first classes of the course, Professor Sterman showed us a SD model of the world system essentially, which connected natural resource accumulation/degradation to human society’s use/disposal of it. Renewable and nonrenewable resource use fed into society’s use of them, which contributed to society’s growing population and overall economic growth, which also tied into the various ways technology and policy shape the dynamics of interaction between the human and natural worlds. It was incredible, and the final conclusion was that no matter how much clean technology and efficiency we develop, or how many innovative environmental policies we come up with, society’s ecological footprint will still remain above 1 Earth and hence be unsustainable since society will still consume more and be driven to drive a false measure of success (GDP) continually upwards.
It was after seeing this model, which originally stemmed from the work done by Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows in Limits to Growth, that I immediately recognized the value in SD and its particular way of ST. Tradeoffs, policy resistance, delays, and counterintuitive causality are what really lie at the heart of all major complex problems and systems. We may have linear engineering designs of buildings, vehicles, the grid, electricity generation, water treatment/distribution, farms, mineral/resource extraction, and other life-sustaining technologies, but their interface with non-perfect economic markets, awry political governance, and ever-changing consumer preferences gives rise to extremely nonlinear effects. SD is the best tool I have seen to date to attempt to wrap our minds around this complexity, and dig deep into the heart of these complex systems to find the roots of major problems.
Hopefully we can get back to a 1 Earth footprint by 2050 with a combination of clean technology dominance, absolute decoupling of economic growth from non-renewable energy use and material throughput, and a growing yet stabilized population of people that are happier with less yet fulfilled more. This is the real beauty of SD: the realization that solving problems like climate change and poverty cannot be done by any one individual actor or institution, but only through collaboration of every individual and institutional player. Everyone plays an important role as both an individual and as a team player of whatever larger business, NGO, university, government agency, community, or social group they may be part of. SD is a great way to come this realization, and I am very glad and grateful to have learned it first from the worldwide renowned leader of the field, Professor John Sterman, who is also an amazing role model that walks the walk and is a source of inspiration for all of us who’ve been lucky enough to take his courses. We need more sustainability leaders to ST the world and ourselves differently, and SD is one of the best tools to do that.