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What is System Dynamics? - A Closer Look

SBS' simulations are designed using the principals of system dynamics. System dynamics is a methodology for studying and managing complex feedback systems, such as one finds in business and other social systems. In fact it has been used to address practically every sort of feedback system. While the word system has been applied to all sorts of situations, feedback is the differentiating descriptor here.

"Feedback" refers to the situation of X affecting Y and Y in turn affecting X perhaps through a chain of causes and effects. One cannot study the link between X and Y and, independently, the link between Y and X and predict how the system will behave. Only the study of the whole system as a feedback system will lead to correct results.

The methodology:

  • identifies a problem,
  • develops a dynamic hypothesis explaining the cause of the problem,
  • builds a computer simulation model of the system at the root of the problem,
  • tests the model to be certain that it reproduces the behavior seen in the real world,
  • devises and tests in the model alternative policies that alleviate the problem, and
  • implements this solution.

Rarely is one able to proceed through these steps without reviewing and refining an earlier step. For instance, the first problem identified may be only a symptom of a still greater problem.

The field developed initially from the work of Jay W. Forrester. His seminal book Industrial Dynamics (Forrester 1961) is still a significant statement of philosophy and methodology in the field. Since its publication, the span of applications has grown extensively and now encompasses work in

  • corporate planning and policy design
  • public management and policy
  • biological and medical modeling
  • energy and the environment
  • theory development in the
  • natural and social sciences
  • dynamic decision making
  • complex nonlinear dynamics

What is the relationship of Systems Thinking to System Dynamics?

Systems thinking looks at exactly the same kind of systems from the same perspective. It constructs the same causal loop diagrams. But it rarely takes the additional steps of constructing and testing a computer simulation model, and testing alternative policies in the model.

What's the System Dynamics Society?

The System Dynamics Society is an international, nonprofit organization devoted to encouraging the development and use of systems thinking and system dynamics around the world. With members in fifty-five countries, the Society provides a forum in which researchers, educators, consultants, and practitioners in the corporate and public sectors interact to introduce newcomers to the field, keep abreast of current developments, and build on each other's work.

Systems Thinking Papers


Introduction to Systems Thinking A short, non-technical introduction to systems thinking (requires the free Adobe Acrobat Reader 3.0 or later)

How Systems Thinking Can Improve the Results of Innovation Efforts An examination of how using systems thinking can prevent the potential waste of valuable innovation efforts (requires the free Adobe Acrobat Reader 3.0 or later).

To request a copy of Worldview & Economics: A Systemic Analysis  (copyright 1994 Daniel Aronson, 52 pp) , send email to

Links to Sites Related to Systems Thinking

The System Dynamics Society  
The homepage of the System Dynamics Society, including a history of system dynamics, a brief description of its tools and applications, information about the annual system dynamics conference, and information on the System Dynamics Review, a refereed journal.

Systems Thinking Practice              
A map of systems thinking, cybernetics, cognition, and other resources on the Web

The Learning Org Discussion Pages
The home of the Learning-Org list, which has over 1400 members on several continents.
Messages are organized by thread, date, and subject. You can participate in the Learning-Org list directly from these pages.

Mental Model Musings
This link will take you to an article that provides a good overview of the history,
development, and principles of systems thinking. There are also additional links there
to other systems thinking-related issues, such as the different systemic situations that
appear frequently across disciplines. These are known as "Archetypes."

System Dynamics: Archetypes
This link takes you to a list of the systemic situations that appear frequently across
disciplines, called "archetypes."

The System Dynamics Mailing List and Discussion Pages
Contains a mailing list and discussion group about system dynamics.

The MIT System Dynamics Group
In addition to information about the MIT System Dynamics Group and its publications,
this page has links to the System Dynamics in Education Project, and other resources about
system dynamics-based computer models.

Stanford Learning Organization Web (SLOW):

The Stanford Learning Organization Web contains further suggested readings,
subscription information for their electronic discussion group on learning organizations,
and links to other systems thinking sites.

The Principia Cybernetica Web
The Principia Cybernetica Web site includes a section on cybernetics &;systems theory. As the Principia Cybernetica Project uses it, "systems theory" is the result of the investigation into
general principles of systems. As such, systems science is closely related to, but not identical
with, systems thinking and system dynamics.

Bibliography of the works of Chris Argyris
One of the best-known writers on learning in organizations and the organizational defensive
routines that prevent it. His Overcoming Organizational Defensive Routines,
Knowledge for Action, and articles in the Harvard Business Review are classics.

Paper on "Organizational Learning and Information Systems"

Notes from the keynotes at the 1995 Systems Thinking in Action conference
The Systems Thinking in Action conference, sponsored by Pegasus Communications, is the largest systems thinking conference. This link includes notes on the keynote addresses at the 1995 conference.

Notes from the keynotes at the 1994 Systems Thinking in Action conference
The Systems Thinking in Action conference, sponsored by Pegasus Communications, is the largest systems thinking conference. This link includes notes on the keynote addresses at the 1994 conference.

Whole Systems Design Association

Deming site at MIT
Includes a link to the Deming site at Clemson University that hosts the Deming mailing list.

Recent Projects Using Systems Thinking Innovatively

The Boston Indicators Project, a joint effort of The Boston Foundation and the City of Boston, Massachusetts, used systems thinking in their 2002 report, Creativity & Innovation: A Bridge to the Future. The Foundation worked with systems thinking consultants (Daniel Aronson, Four Profit Inc; Phil Clawson, Community Matters Group; and Brendan Miller and Osamu Uehara of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to help find a core theme in the changes in the 200 indicators related to the greater Boston area's economic strength, civic life, community fabric, health status, diversity, and other areas. As a result, the report highlights the connections between economic innovation, transportation, the cost of living, diversity, demographics, and many other areas.

[ Thinking Page] [Systems Thinking] [Creativity] [Cybernetics] [Cognition] [Reflexions]

Contact Information

For information, or to obtain information on the Beer Game, bibliography of System Dynamics, or older back issues of the journal please contact Roberta L. Spencer, Executive Director:

        518 442-3865
        518 442-3398
   Postal address
        The System Dynamics Society
        Milne Hall 300, Rockefeller College
        135 Western Avenue
        University at Albany
        Albany, NY 12222
   Electronic mail
        General Information: