Friday, July 20, 2012

Feedback loops: the central tool for understanding everything around us?

Loops, loops, loops.  How much do we understand, how much do we not, and how much more understanding do we need? (photo credit: wolfpix)

Heard an excellent talk by MIT Professor Jay Forrester this week.  He is the founder of Systems Dynamics, a growing field offering powerful tools and frameworks for understanding complex systems such as organizations, urban cities and healthcare systems.

A key idea Professor Forrester shared, is that everything that changes through time is controlled by feedback loops.  And that means that we can understand things around us better if we understand feedback loops better!  City growth, spread of infectious diseases, stagnating profits, misbehaving children, you name it.  Even a simple task like filling a glass with water is controlled by feedback loops, as shown in the diagram below:  as water is being poured in the glass, the level of water in the glass goes up, and that prompts the pourer to slow down the pouring.  You can even use feedback loops to better understand the popular children story "The Lorax" (see "Studying The Lorax with Feedback Loops")!

However, most of us are not accustomed to feedback loop thinking.  Professor Forrester said that we are more used to "open-loop thinking", instead of "closed-loop thinking".  This means that usually we look at a situation, think about possible actions and consequences, decide an action, and then move on. Rarely do we think about how our actions result in ripple effects in a larger context, and somehow comes back to impact the originator.  It feels as if we need to worry about how the fluttering of wings of a butterfly in China could create a tornado in the United States.  How does one even start thinking about impacts like these?  It is too complex for most people to handle, or to have an interest in.  Feedback loops (or more accurately System Dynamics) seem to offer tools to help us manage such complex analysis, and avoid the pitfalls of open-loop thinking.

Professor Forrester envisioned that the world will be a better place if more of us are trained to analyze situations with feedback loops.  He pointed out three ways in which the world would be bettered if people are trained:

1. We would make better citizens

Many national policies are bad because they are made with open-loop thinking.  Those policies focus on short term gains, at the expense of creating long term burdens.  But why are policy-makers still making them?  It is because the general public is better at identifying the short term gains.  But when citizens of countries are able to tease out short term and long term impacts of policies using feedback loops, they would be more discerning of short-sighted policies and provide the necessary support for long term investments that have less short term gains.

2. We can learn faster

Professor Forrester shared how one Masters student was able to very quickly get to the research frontier of a new field using feedback loops to do his analysis.  In the same way, he believes that all of us can benefit from the power of closed-loop thinking.

3. Our children can learn faster

A very interesting project that Professor Forrester is pushing now, is teaching feedback loops to K-12 children, and helping them using this tool learn better.  From literature to math to science, it is quite unbelievable how broadly this tool is targeted to be applied.  I am excited to try this out myself and evaluate its effectiveness in educating children and helping them gain better analysis skills.  Check out Creative Learning Exchange for more information on this initiative.

I am currently learning more about feedback loops.  Definitely hope to share more about it as I learn.

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