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All policies make sense based on their underlying assumptions; otherwise no one would be tempted to formulate them or carry them out. Yet, they often have unforeseen consequences that lead to very different outcomes than the ones imagined. Worse, unlike the characters in folk tales who end up realizing their mistake, the unforeseen consequences of policies are typically diffuse and indirect, therefore difficult to trace to their causes. In this fashion, we become lost in a maze of unforeseen consequences.

from this blog post.

The value of System Dynamics is exactly to surface the underlying assumptions, thus minimizes the unforeseen consequences.


The motivation of writing this post comes from the discussion of religion in the comments section (at the end) of this post. Actually I have a plan to write it as a paper, but consider myself is still a beginner of Taoism philosophy and my English is not good enough to express Taoism terms, I have only drafted it in Chinese. In that book-style blog I also posted my view on reality, which I think is the only thing we have to believe and then the rest (including moral) can be derived from science and reasoning (Tao). This forms a complete philosophy of life that can replace religious dogma.

Key ideas:

  1. Yi (易) means “change” or “dynamics”. There is a classic text called I Ching (易经 in Simplified Chinese, 易經 in Traditional Chinese), also known as “Book of Changes”. It is a compilation of ancient Chinese wisdom when they tried to make sense of the change keep running around them. Unfortunately it is very old and so very obscure. It may be a divination book but contain ancient Chinese understanding of dynamics. In System Dynamics context, it can be interpreted as “behaviour”, as in Behaviour Over Time (BOT) graph.
  2. Tao (道), literally means “way” or “principle”, but I think it is better be understood as “principle of how nature works” or just simply “nature” or “science”. In System Dynamics context, it can be interpreted as “structure”, or more accurately, “building blocks of System Dynamics”, “principles of System Dynamics (science of change)”. It also includes evolution, science of change on organisms. The classic text of Tao is Tao Te Ching (道德经 in Simplified Chinese, 道德經 in Traditional Chinese).
  3. Note the word Te (德) in Tao Te Ching, which means “virtue” or “moral”. Chinese usually use compound word dàodé (道德) to mean “morality”, “principles of ethics”), showing close relationship of science and morality. Modern research on evolution of morality also tries to explain morality from evolutionary perspective.

Therefore, these three key ideas become the basis of a comprehensive philosophy of life that might be essential for achieving global vision. The philosophy requires critical thinking, which demand wisdom. To improve wisdom, need to tackle nurture as well as nature.

What do you think? I would like to hear your comment.

Unfortunately, an understanding of the causes of violent conflict does not, in itself, provide a sufficient basis for implementing good policies and avoiding bad ones, though scholars sometimes believe this. Theory can help us understand the process by which violent conflict escalates. Promoting understanding is the role of the scholar. But effective political leadership requires a combination of understanding, toughness, vision, empathy, courage and the ability to communicate. Political leaders need the results of our theorizing. They need our understanding and our prayers as well.

from this inspiring paper. Its ten lessons are very valuable too.

Also, by courtesy of this paper, excerpt from The Electronic Oracle: Computer Models and Social Decisions‘s “Epilogue”:

We have said that computer modeling can add five important qualities to human understanding beyond what can be achieved by the mind alone.

1. Precision
2. Comprehensiveness
3. Logic
4. Explicitness
5. Flexibility

The great problems that threaten modern social systems – poverty and hunger, armaments and terrorism, environmental destruction and resource depletion – certainly would be helped if these five qualities became regular elements in human decision-making. But we have also said that these qualities cannot be realized unless modelers become compassionate, humble, open-minded, self-insightful, and committed. If those qualities would become regular elements in human decision-making the problems of the globe would certainly be solved.

… being persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about.

One interesting idea is the quadrants formed by self-regarding to other-regarding behaviours axis and novelty-seeking to tradition/conservation axis. He argued that our systems systematically encourage one narrow quadrant of self-regarding and novelty-seeking behaviour. Therefore the solution is not about changing human nature, but opening up the breadth of human possibilities.

Although System Dynamics looks at the big picture of the problem, when it comes to policy implementation, we still need to influence people individually – either group model building with representatives of stakeholders, or engage individuals for education of dynamics, even our final goal is social learning (holistic).

Economics can be a science, social science, a system of principles describing how human actually behaves in society level. It will be a great help when we needs to apply these well-tested principles to (perceived to be) problem.

But it is wrong to equal what we want as science. Optimization is not science, it is the way we do to achieve desired outcome, it is engineering. As in applied domain, optimization goal has to be defined. In nonlinear case, absolute optimum will never be known, only local optima can be reached.

Of course there is relationship between science and application, but the explanation focus is the symbol of science, problem focus is the symbol of application. To solve a problem we cannot constrain ourselves to particular domain (e.g. economics only, or psychology only), we needs to focus on the essence of the problem and use whatever knowledge we have to tackle the problem. This is the fundamental principle of engineering.

By the way, System Dynamics can be think as applied dynamics, a useful tool to apply science of dynamics in many problems, especially when transdisciplinary knowledge is necessary.

Just discover Scholarpedia. It might be a good try to gather all the knowledge we have in a place accessible to public, instead of subscribing million of journals. Would it change the way scholar converse?

It is interesting to see how epidemics and predator-prey model being presented in the differential equations format. What do you think if they are presented in stock and flow diagram, like Figure 4 of

A good example of online System Dynamics Interactive Learning Environment (ILE):
Oil Dynamics
helps you to understand dynamics of oil price better.

Jay W. Forrester’s “Learning Through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century” may give you a clue:
the latest version as mentioned by Bill Harris.

A very good introductory book of systems thinking by Donella Meadows after I peeked some pages from
Google Books.

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