A Brief Interview with Jay W. Forrester


Last May, as men who have made careers out of urban affairs converged at the "Conference on Cities," in Indianapolis, a distinctly heretical voice was heard by those in attendance. In the midst of appeals by Mayor Lindsay for massive federal revenue sharing and demands by Mayor Stokes for a huge federal housing subsidy program, a widely respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Jay W. Forrester, argued that the "goals, values, and morality" behind such policies had to be reassessed.

"We must rethink man's responsibility to man," Forrester told the audience. "Is one to be his brother's keeper, regardless of how that brother manages? Suppose a nation controls its urban processes so that it achieves an equilibrium society that remains at a high standard of living. Is that nation obligated to share with a neighbor that overloaded its resources and drove itself to a subsistence level of existence? If so, there are no incentives for anyone to act for the future. To make the best of the future requires restraint, self-discipline, and intentionally increased pressures in the present…Such reasoning runs counter to modern trends. But we must be willing to question the moral and philosophical underpinnings of our social policies. Those foundations determine the present actions that create the future."

Contributing Editor Mark Frazier contacted Professor Forrester last June and asked him four brief questions. These questions, and Forrester's answers, appear below.

REASON: In the event that the conclusions of URBAN DYNAMICS are not acted upon, what changes in the political and economic structure of this country do you think might take place?

FORRESTER: The political and economic changes that will occur if the conclusions of URBAN DYNAMICS are not acted upon cannot be separated, as the balance between them is too delicate. Continual deterioration of cities will further concentrate the poor in urban areas and push the rich into exurbia leading to greater polarization across economic and racial lines. There will be eventual refusal to continue the dole, by the elctorate. Productive enterprise will be driven out of the cities with "new towns" growing close to employer's new locations. Disillusionment will arise over traditional values and procedures, and disenchantment with the "intellectuals" who did not do useful thinking about the nation's most conspicuous problem. All of these will push a greater swing to the political right.

REASON: To what areas will you be applying systems analysis in the near future?

FORRESTER: In the near future, with support for the training of competent professionals, we can apply system dynamics to such urgent problems as the welfare system, health care delivery, economic development, and regional planning.

REASON: What sort of reactions did you get to your Indianapolis speech?

FORRESTER: The Indianapolis speech provoked a dialogue which could have constructive results, at least it focused attention on some real issues. Many recent visitors to this group agree with the long-term conclusions but were at a loss as to a current approach. Consequently they were motivated to look more deeply into the merits of our approach.

REASON: If there is one lesson that has stood out most from your experience with social and economic systems, what is it?

FORRESTER: The most important lesson to be learned from the behavior of social and economic systems is that behavior can be modeled and understood and that we can control the future direction of behavior by applying proper pressure at sensitive points within the system.