System Dynamics Conf. – VI – The Rest

By | August 2, 2009

This will be my last journal style post on the conference; I’ve got two detailed write-ups of the “Closing Challenges” presentations to post separately, and at some point, I’ve got some reflections on the conference as a whole, and in general on what one can get out of a conference, but they’ll wait till later.

On Wednesday night, there was a panel titled “A Conversation with Peter Senge“. He’s the author of “The Fifth Discipline” and is considered one of the field’s luminaries. I’ve not read his books, but I understand he’s particularly interested in System Dynamics as a whole way of thinking rather than just as a modelling technique, if that makes any sense. Sounds like something I should read, anyway.

The discussion touched on a bunch of topics, but the two main themes were education and theories of change. In terms of education, he advocated what is to me, now, a fairly standard position involving less formal classrooms, mentoring instead of authoritarian teaching, and the use of models and games to scaffold learning. I didn’t get a lot out of the discussion of theories of change, mostly because it was really abstract, in terms of both content and structure. One nice quote came out of it, though: “People don’t resist change, they resist being changed”.

There was also a little bit of discussion about climate change, following on from John Sterman’s presentation (I’ll post notes on this in the next day or so) earlier in the day. Peter offered an interestingly optimistic perspective on the social implications of the problem. It’s not a problem that can just be solved by engineers or scientists, nor is it a problem that any one group of us can solve alone. Rather, it can be recast as a unique opportunity that forces the whole world to cooperate lest we all drown together, so to speak. This might seem hopelessly optimistic, but there’s a kernel of truth to this – strength can indeed come from adversity, and who knows what institutions might evolve to deal with this threat.

Thursday was workshop day. In the morning, I participated in one led by John Sterman in which he demonstrated a model based game his team had devised for teaching about commodity pricing. It was actually quite fun; we each played salt producers competing for shares in a US-wide market for salt to be spread on roads in winter, based purely on pricing. The optimal strategies had less to do with pricing out one’s competitors to capture market share than with silently colluding with competition in order to maintain a profitable market split evenly. This was counterintuitive, as the instinct was compete and grow by capturing market share. This sort of game could easily fit into classroom lessons, and was a great example of model-based education. More on this some other time when I’m better focused on education again.

In the afternoon, I sat in on part of a workshop called ‘Masterful Classes K-12’. I’d hoped it was about  employing system dynamics to teach other topics, as this has a lot in common with my interest in games and education; a model is just like a toy, which is just like a game without goals and structured activity. Unfortunately, it was more about masterful teaching of system dynamics, which was of less interest to me.

That evening, I went downtown to look around. I ended up having sushi for dinner. I wasn’t really expecting it to be great, as Albuquerque doesn’t strike me as an international city nor is it famed for its seafood.  Nonetheless, it was great and the specialty with green chilli I tried was really quite delightful, particularly in the contrast between the chilli and wasabi.

Friday was the sixth and final day, making this the longest academic conference I’ve been to. It was a ‘bonus’ day, with special events and a few SIG meetings.

In the morning, I participated in the ‘Copenhagen Climate Exercise’. This was basically a simplistic LARP based around the climate treaty negotiation process, using the C-ROADS model I’ll be discussing in a post tomorrow or the next day. We were divided into three teams representing the developed nations, the rapidly devoloping nations, and the least developed nations, together negotiating agreements on emissions reduction. These proposals were then presented to the moderators to run through the model.

I was on the team representing the least developed nations, along with about thirty others. To reflect our economic and political clout, we had to sit on the floor as we were not allowed chairs. Unfortunately, with a group as large as ours, group discussion and decision making was difficult to manage. As a result, our first proposal came from a small group of vocal players, leaving many of the others feeling left out. This made the activity a lot more interesting for me, however, as it opened up opportunities for coalition building and setting up some sort of deliberative structure. I love political games.

As a teaching tool, the format seemed effective. While making the activity more game-like would have satisfied me further, the additional complexity would probably have obscured the exercise’s educational purpose. Nonetheless, it’s got me thinking about how LARPs could be adapted for educational purposes. This is done to some extent already by some teachers, I think; Mr Hoskins, a teacher I once had when I was about six, certainly did something like a LARP involving pirates once. This is a tangent I might explore more some other time.

In the afternoon, I sat in on a strategy meeting held by the business SIG. They were discussing ways to make system dynamics more visible, as despite its many success stories, it’s largely unknown or misunderstood in the business world. I may have said I’ll advise on creating a blog and wiki to help market themselves. Oops. On the other hand, it’s good and worthwhile stuff to promote, and it’s not like I’ve committed to any sort of workload.

And that was that. I went back to my hostel, had a nap, then spent the evening reading, before flying back this afternoon. I was thinking about going out and doing some more touristing, but frankly, my brain had melted.

  • Are you a professional journalist? You write very well.

  • Nope, just a grad student..