Outsized influence on organizational

Jay W. Forrester SM ’45, professor emeritus in the MIT Sloan School of Management, founder of the field of system dynamics, and a pioneer of digital computing, died Nov. 16. He was 98.

Forrester’s time at MIT was rife with invention. He was a key figure in the development of digital computing, the national air defense system, and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. He developed servomechanisms (feedback-based controls for mechanical devices), radar controls, and flight-training computers for the U.S. Navy. He led Project Whirlwind, an early MIT digital computing project. It was his work on Whirlwind that led him to invent magnetic core memory, an early form of RAM for which he holds the patent, in 1949.

MIT Sloan Professor John Sterman, a student, friend, and colleague of Forrester’s since the 1970s, points to a 2003 photo of Forrester on a Segway as an illustration of his work’s lasting impact.

“He really is standing on top of the fruits of his many careers,” Sterman said. “He’s standing on a device that integrates servomechanisms, digital controllers, and a sophisticated feedback control system.”

“From the air traffic control system to 3-D printers, from the software companies use to manage their supply chains to the simulations nations use to understand climate change, the world in which we live today was made possible by Jay’s work,” he said.

Systems dynamics: A new view of management

It was after turning his attention to management in the mid-1950s that Forrester developed system dynamics — a model-based approach to analyzing complex organizations and systems — while studying a General Electric appliance factory. An MIT Technology Review article explores how he sought to combat the factory’s boom-and-bust cycle by examining its “weekly orders, inventory, production rate, and employees.” He then developed a computer simulation of the GE supply chain to show how management practices, not market forces, were causing the cycle.

Forrester’s “Industrial Dynamics” was published in 1961. The field expanded to chart the complexities of economies, supply chains, and organizations. Later, he cast the principles of system dynamics on global issues in “Urban Dynamics,” published in 1969, and “World Dynamics,” published in 1971. The latter was an integrated simulation model of population, resources, and economic growth. Forrester became a critic of growth, a position that earned him few friends.