MIT Sloan professor and researcher John Sterman is a global leader in the area of system dynamics. He has pioneered the use of management flight simulators to better understand complex systems and explore a range of urgent sustainability issues.

Systems Thinking for a Sustainable World

John Sterman is the Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management at MIT Sloan and Director of MIT’s System Dynamics Group. Widely considered one of the world’s leading thinkers in the area of system dynamics, his more than 30 years of research focuses on systems thinking and organizational learning, computer simulation of complex systems, sustainability and climate change. At the heart of his work is a deeply held conviction that to change the world, we must change the way people think.

Management takes flight

Sterman believes that our failure to engage in systems thinking – seeing how individual parts work within an interconnected whole – is at the root of many of our current sustainability challenges. “We live in a society that trains us to stay within artificial and damaging boundaries,” Sterman writes in his essay All Models Are Wrong. “We … impose these categories on the world to simplify its overwhelming complexity … and then our problems grow worse.”

To shift this thinking, Sterman has pioneered the use of management flight simulators, which allow us to better understand the long-term consequences of our actions within complex systems. “Receiving feedback on our actions is essential to learning,” Sterman says. “Being burned after touching a flame leaves a lasting impression. But the consequences of burning fossil fuels are distant in time and space. They tend to be out of sight, so they are often out of mind.”

Sterman and colleagues have created simulations to examine issues including climate policy and greenhouse gas emissions, but one of the most popular focuses on a far more recreational pursuit. In the Beer Game, players work to minimize their costs as part of a network of beer factories, wholesalers, distributors, and retailers. “It creates a setting in which people could perform very well as a team,” Sterman says. “But that almost never happens. Instead, people often blame each other or some outside influence for the setbacks that inevitably occur, preventing learning, trust and improvement.”

Simulations are essential to learning. When the consequences of our decisions unfold over years, decades and centuries, that is, for climate change and many issues we face, simulation becomes the main – perhaps the only – way we can discover for ourselves how complex systems work and what the impact of different policies might be.

 

Changing the Way We Think

By immersing people – from students to CEOs to government leaders – in virtual worlds, from supply chains to fisheries to solar photovoltaics to the climate, simulators provide them with a perspective they might not get in the classroom, board room or situation room. “Rather than being fed information, people collectively develop insights in response to those challenges,” Sterman says. “They see that change is a collective effort.”

Despite the daunting problems facing society, Sterman is hopeful about the future. “We know from our research that people can learn about complexity and develop their systems thinking skills,” he says. “Systems thinking can be taught from grade school to graduate school and beyond. We have to be pragmatic, energetic, and committed – but we can do it.”