Pioneer in Computer Models and former Club of Rome member Jay W. Forrester dies at 98


It is with great sadness that the Club of Rome has learnt of the passing away of our former Member Jay W. Forrester.

Jay founded what became the field of System Dynamics in 1956 and has had a profound and lasting influence on it throughout its 60-year history. A lifelong innovator Jay was a pioneer in digital computing and helped create the computer age in which we all live today. Trained in electrical engineering, Jay came to MIT in 1939, where he worked on feedback control servomechanisms during World War II. After the war, Jay directed the MIT Digital Computer Laboratory, where he led the design and construction of Whirlwind I, one of the world’s first high-speed digital computers. He invented and holds the patent for magnetic core memory, the dominant form of random access memory (RAM) for decades (even travelling to the moon with the Apollo astronauts), until it was eventually replaced by semiconductors.

Invited to join the faculty of the MIT Sloan School of Management in 1956, Jay created the field of system dynamics to apply engineering concepts of feedback systems and digital simulation to understand what he famously called “the counterintuitive behavior of social systems.” His ground-breaking 1961 book “Industrial Dynamics” remains a clear and relevant statement of philosophy and methodology in the field.

In his 1971 book “World Dynamics,” he developed global modeling, which examines population growth and industrialization in a world with finite resources. His World 1 model was used by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W. Behrens III, and others for the first and most famous Report to The Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” in 1972. Using these methods, Jay Forrester was also among the first to truly understand that the common root of the problems facing our planet is unfettered growth in the human ecological footprint. His later books and his numerous articles broke new ground in our understanding of complex human systems and policy problems. Jay officially retired in 1989, but continued his work unabated, focusing on promoting the use of system dynamics in education.

Jay was married for sixty-four years to Susan, who died in 2010. Survivors include one daughter, Judith Forrester of Massachusetts; two sons, Nathan B. Forrester of Florida, and Ned C. Forrester of Massachusetts.