MIT Prof. Jay W. Forrester, whose insights into both computing and organizations more than 60 years ago gave rise to a field of computer modeling that examines the behavior of things as specific as a corporation and as broad as global growth, died this week at age 98. Working at MIT in the 1950s, he developed the fields of system and industrial dynamics modeling to help corporations understand the long-term impact of management policies.
System dynamics, Forrester wrote, “uses computer simulation to take the knowledge we already have about details in the world around us and to show why our social and physical systems behave the way they do”. Forrester expanded his approach in the late 1960s to consider social problems, including urban decay. In his 1971 book “World Dynamics,” he developed global modeling, which examines population growth and industrialization in a world with finite resources.
System dynamics came to him shortly after he joined the MIT business faculty, when he took on a project for G.E. The company was grappling with big fluctuations in stock levels and work force numbers at an appliance plant in Kentucky. His breakthrough came after he interviewed plant managers. He discovered that the fluctuations had been caused not by external factors, as the managers thought, but by a dynamic system of internal factors that included policies for inventory control and hiring. He then developed computer simulations of the G.E. case, planting the seeds for the field.
Forrester was also one of the inventors of magnetic core memory, a form of computer memory that dominated the computer industry for decades. His obituary appears in the New York Times (Nov. 17, 2016).