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System dynamics, sustainability, and Earth Day

Earth Day--which will celebrate its 45th anniversary on April 22--has come a long way since its inaugural kick off back in 1970. Capitalizing on the energy of the sometimes turbulent 70s, today's Earth Day is much broader in scope than the original event.

This year's theme focuses on bringing together the different communities of climate, sustainability, poverty, and development to build a more inclusive global movement, according to Kathleen Rogers, President and CEO of Earth Day Network (EDN), an international nonprofit organization that coordinates Earth Day actions globally.

Launching the field of sustainability at MIT Sloan

In that watershed year when Earth Day was first celebrated, then-MIT Sloan Professor Jay Forrester—known by many as the father of system dynamics—initiated MIT's involvement with sustainability. Forrester created a system dynamics model of the world's socioeconomic system, which he published in a book titled World DynamicsThrough novel computer simulations (his World2 model), Forrester showed the dangers of continued, unrestrained resource usage and population growth. This project led to an extended study (World3) by one of Forrester's former Ph.D students, Dennis Meadows, and the publication of Limits to Growth, which sold 12 million copies, was translated into 37 languages, and has been credited as launching the environmental movement globally. The book was updated on it's 20th and 30th anniversary.

"Limits to Growth highlighted the tension between growth in human economic activity and the limits of a finite planet, launching the field of sustainability right here at MIT Sloan," according to Jason Jay, MIT Sloan Lecturer and Director of The MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, a group of 31 scholars that strives to harness the Institute's propensity for innovation to achieve social justice and a flourishing planet. The Sustainability Initiative pays particular attention to management innovation, without which technological innovations like renewable energy won't reach scale or economic feasibility. 

The issue of sustainability is one that affects all people and businesses. MIT defines sustainability broadly--as the interdependent systems of economy, society, politics, the environment, and the individual. In his recent webinar, The PROMISE of a Systems Approach to Sustainability, posted to, Jay gives an overview of the PROMISE framework, which analyzes sustainability at Personal, Relational, Organizational, Market, Institutional, Social, and Environmental levels. 

This framework is the basis for MIT Sloan's systemic approach to sustainability strategy, and it's a centerpiece of our short course, Strategies for Sustainable Business (October 26–28, 2015). The program covers the application of process improvement and system dynamics to the topic of sustainability and is taught by Jay and John Sterman, Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management Professor of System Dynamics and Engineering Systems at MIT Sloan and Faculty Director of The Sustainability Initiative.

This is the first post in a series dedicated to the topic of sustainability.


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