Jay Wright Forrester

Some learning opportunities come along in disguise – presenting themselves in one form, yet offering a whole other range of information in another. Such was the case when John Sterman, of the System Dynamics Group at MIT, reached out to work together on a timeline of the life and impact of Jay Wright Forrester. (Click on the image above to zoom in or download the printable file.)

At first, we talked about my redrawing a map that John, Nelson Repenning, and others had sketched on a very large dry-erase wall. It seemed fairly straightforward, and I thought the “job” would be a mere translation from one medium to another. The image would be presented at a symposium honoring Jay, where family, past collaborators, students, colleagues, and fans could see the range and extent of his work over time.  

But as with any model, the more we saw, the more we saw! We ended up going through a few cycles of iteration to double check topics, links, and the people included. And even the current printed 4×8′ version seems like just a mark in time for an artifact that could be repeatedly updated as the boundary of the model – of the timeline – expands.

This leads to the real gift, beyond the creative act of figuring out how to cross as few lines as possible… which was receiving this highly unique window into the life of an extraordinary man – someone who, through invention and unending curiosity, set the course for entire, multiple fields, including  Servomechanisms, Computing (including core memory!) and System Dynamics. His influence can probably be experienced by almost everyone on the planet in some way or another, across dozens of advances including: radar, computers, space exploration, the internet, Limits to Growth, climate policy, k-12 education, automated car technology, among much, much else. I know very little about the specifics – just enough to know that, though ripple effect, one life can make a tremendous difference for ALL life on this planet.

The stories shared at the symposium about Jay, and the numerous ways he profoundly influenced people’s lives, nourished a seed of determination in me to get up, stay open, work with rigor, share, and inquire.

We never really know what continues on after a death. Nature renews. People and their identities come and go. As a species, we evolve – albeit in jagged, sometimes accelerated, sometimes stalled advancement. Trial and error and continual learning, as Jay exemplified, all necessary undertakings to keep us forward-bound.


Jay Forrester’s World Dynamics diagram of the WORLD1 model, 1970 – ResearchGate


  1. kahoe2015 says:

    Kelvy, what a cool thing to do, and it is beautiful! Was the symposium held prior to his passing away last fall? Just wondering if this is recent of if he got to see your work.

    • Kelvy Bird says:

      Jay passed away last year. The symposium was a gathering – almost a reunion – of many, many people whose lives he’d touched… And it offered some fresh thinking into current applications of his work, i.e.: how thousands of teachers in Oregon bring SD into the classroom, through topics like calculus, and who teach with SD framing in mind.

      Someone (maybe Jørgen Randers) at one point said “People only act on information that is available to them, and do so also when the information is false.” And of course it was relevant to all going on now in US, and world, w/alternative facts…

  2. Ralf says:

    This is so wonderful to see, Kelvy.

    Coincidently it came up on my FB timeline just seconds after I posted about how Jay W. Forrester has shaped my life since meeting him in 2007 for the first time.