TIMS Studies in the Management Sciences 14 (1980) 75-89 © North-Holland Publishing Company

TIME IN SYSTEM DYNAMICS
Lewis J. PERELMAN
Jet Propulsion Laboratory

*

System dynamics studies the behavior of systems through time. Yet time itself rarely is discussed in the existing literature of the field. Alternative concepts of time come from Newtonian mechanics and from modern thermodynamics; system dynamics mixes these two concepts in a way which may be problematical. Another issue involving time is the selection of the time horizon of the model run. The length of the time horizon affects the policy implications of the simulation, yet no clear rule exists for selecting the time horizon. These problems with the treatment of time in modeling influence the practical application of system dynamics to policy management.

1. Introduction
People complain about time being short, going fast. But when it seems to go slowly they complain that it drags. Let us consider the people, not the supposed movement of time. Idries Shah

"Feedback systems are of interest because of the way they act through time." This simple statement by Jay Forrester (1968, pp. 2-7) defines one of the major goals of system dynamics. System behavior traced through a flow of time is the focus of all system dynamics research. Yet, to my knowledge, the literature of system dynamics uniformly has taken for granted the concept of time on which the methodology is based. Time is the canvas on which all system dynamics models are painted; though the design of the model often is debated, the nature of the canvas rarely is noticed. The following discussion deals with the meaning and structure of time in system dynamics, not only as a theoretical issue but also in terms of the intellectual, emotional, and ethical interests of system dynamics practitioners as human beings. I address the subject from the perspective of a professional policy analyst, who works as an advisor to the management of public bureaucracies, and who uses
* The author is indebted to Dennis Meadows. Donella Meadows, Herman Daly, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, and Arthur Harkins for their comments on early drafts of this paper and to Gerda Whitney for her editorial assistance. The views expressed are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of any other individual (If or uaruza t iori.

76

L.J. Perelman, Time ill system dvnamics

system dynamics models as one basis for the evaluation and development of public policies. My experience indicates that the treatment of time is important to the effectiveness of system dynamics in the process of "policy management" - i.e., a consciously systematic approach to real-world decision making. The issues raised here arc too complex to resolve in so short a space. Rather, my goal is to call attention to some questions relevant to the development of system dynamics which I believe have not been sufficiently addressed in the existing literature of the field. I hope to provoke the interest of the generalists and specialists who need to collaborate on finding the answers.

2 _Concepts of time

Discussions of time in system dynamics literature deal with time constants of system behavior, the time increment of each iteration of the simulation, and the total time span of the simulation run. But the existing literature assumes that the term "time" refers to a single concept which is universally understood and accepted. Practitioners of the methodology may not realize how limited and vulnerable an assumption this is. Among non-Western language groups and cultures are found vastly different conceptions of "time" and "dynamic behavior":
There is no boundary between past Trobriand existence and the present; he can indicate that an action is completed, but this does not mean that the action is past; it may be completed and present or timeless. Where we would say "Many years ago" and use the past tense, the Trobriander will say, "In my father's childhood" and use nontemporal verbs: he places the event situationally , not temporally. Past, present, and fu ture are presented linguistically as the same ... (Lee, 1973, p. 139)

More germane to the present discussion is the fact that even within the domain of contemporary Western science, at least two major concepts of time are employed (Georgescu-Rcegen , 1971, Ch. 5), and confusion between these can cause serious methodological problems. The first of these two concepts, labelled "t", derives from Newtonian mechanics and represents a slice taken out of the universal flow of Time for the purpose of studying the behavior of a mechanical system. The nature of "t" is that it is assumed reversible and uniform. To develop the Newtonian laws of mechanics, one has to assume, first, that in any equation where "t" appears the substitution of "minus t" will predict motion exactly in reverse. A motion picture of a frictionless, swinging pendulum portrays physically realistic movement whether run forward or in reverse; the change in the sign of "t" does not violate Newton's Laws. Second, one has to assume that all time intervals, "delta t", of the same length are identical. This is to say the pendulum swings the same way in 1777 or in 1977. (As noted later, this also implies that the informs lion content of the system is conserved.) The second concept of time, "T", comes from the development of thermo-

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

77

dynamics. The essential argument of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Entropy Law, is that every transformation of a real system produces a change in the universe which is both qualitative and irrevocable. The motion picture of a thermodynamic process cannot be run in reverse and present a realistic image: spilled milk does not flow back into the bottle, and a house of cards does not spontaneously spring forth from a random jumble. Real Time, the Time of our consciousness and our experience of the real world, is unidirectional and evolutionary. Unidirectional because the degradations of heat, friction, and other phenomena of decay are irrevocable and occur only one way. Evolutionary because irrevocable change leaves milestones in the path of Time which create a history. The relationship between the theories of entropy and of evolution has been an intimate and sometimes paradoxical one which has been influenced by the dual concepts of time. In the 19th century, Sir Charles Lyell's studies of fossil organisms in geological strata strongly suggested a pattern of progressive development of form and complexity through Time. In order to formulate a theory of geological evolution, Lyell postulated the principle of uniformitarianism. The problem confronting Lyell was much like a system dynamics problem. He had two types of empirical information available: information describing the geological structure of the earth (mountains, deserts, rivers, oceans, forests, etc.) and information describing the forces affecting the dynamic behavior of that structure (wind, rain, vulcanism, biological processes, etc.). In effect, Lyell had a collection of level variables and rate variables. Lyell's problem was to explain the relationship between geological structure and physical forces in a continuous model of geophysical evolution - i.e., a model for explaining the dynamic behavior of the geological system through time. Since Lyell's model had to incorporate an extremely long time interval, he had to make assumptions about the nature of time in his model which were incorporated in the principle of uniformitarianism. The elements of the principle assumed that the forces operating on the earth's crust in the present were the same and the only forces that had done so since the origin of the system. The principle assumed, second, that these forces operated in the same way, at the same rate, uniformly throughout the entire previous history of the system. In effect, then, the principle of uniformitarianism was related to conservation of information. The principle meant that all the information necessary to describe the dynamic behavior of the system was present in every state of the system, past and future. The importance of uniformitarianism in solving Lyell's "modeling" problem now should be clear. The principle permitted Lyell, beginning with a description of the present state of the system and of the rate and direction of certain dynamic forces, to extrapolate the impacts of those forces backward ill time to the origin. The results of this reverse extrapolation were both a theory (or model) of geophysical evolution and an estimate for the age of the earth. The principle of uniformitarianism served as the Rosetta Stone needed to decode the story engraved in the earth's crust. But the assumptions were basically an exten-

78

L.l. Perelman,

Time ill svsrem dynamics

sion of the Newtonian concept of time to the study of terrestrial evolution. Lyell treated the earth's crust as a giant clock which could be run backward or forward with predictable results. His theory conflicted with the vision of planetary history in the developing field of thermodynamics. Lord Kelvin's calculations of the heat flow from the earth's interior indicated a lifetime for the earth much less than what seemed to be required by the evolutionary theories of Lyell, Darwin, and others. This contradiction was removed by the subsequent discovery of radioactivity, a heat source unrecognized by Kelvin, but a basic conflict in the perception of the behavior of systems through Time remained. The Entropy Law also contradicted (though not explicitly until the next century) the conservation of inforrnation implied in uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism leads to a view of system behavior through time as progressive, developmental. The Entropy Law portrays the same behavior as a downhill slide toward inevitable decay. The paradox of biological evolution, where so-called "self-organizing systems" appear to behave through Time in a manner contrary to the rule of the Entropy Law, was resolved by the modern discoveries of cellular biochemistry. At the level of the living cell, it has been demonstrated that the thermodynamic price of structural evolution is paid in full (Monod, 1971). We must now view T as a "truer" concept of time than t, at least in the sense of providing a more realistic context for the study of real-world systems. Uniformitarianism and t are still useful in studying some aspects of system behavior, but are less comprehensive explanatory principles than T. Modern thermodynamic, quantum, and relativity theories have led to a dramatically different view of reality from that of classical science. Yet the modern scientific revolution is more evident in the natural sciences than in the social sciences, which still seem largely based on the concepts of classical mechanics, including Newtonian time. That quantum and relativity theory have affected social science so little may not be very surprising since they deal with aspects of reality far removed from the mainstream of our ordinary human experience. But the same is not true of thermodynamics. The Entropy Law is a central feature of the world of our ordinary consciousness and experience, as Georgescu-Roegen (1971, p. 10) has observed:
We know that people can live even if deprived of sight, or of hearing, or of the sense of smell or taste. But we know of no one able to live without the feeling which under various forms regulates the activities directly related with the maintenance of the physical organisms. In the case of a mammal this feeling includes not only the sensations of cold and warm but also the pangs of hunger and the contentment after a meal, the feeling of being tired and that of being rested, and many others of the same kind. Things are not stretched, therefore, if one argues that the entropic feeling, in its conscious and unconscious manifestations, is the fundamental aspect of life from amoeba to man.

In spite of (and perhaps because of) the ubiquitous impact of the Entropy Law on human experience, we commonly ignore or deny its existence. Tyro inventors con-

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

79

tinually apply for patents on perpetual motion devices. Prestigious economists insist there are no physical limits to material growth. Politicians avoid mentioning declining resource quality as a cause of monetary inflation. Our social sciences generally are undergoing a crisis of credibility, partly as a consequence of their failure to accommodate the reality of the Entropy Law. Why has this happened? A major part of the reason may be the ambiguous time dimension of our systems studies. Social scientists embracing uniformitarianism need not feel imprisoned by the past nor, more important, disturbed by a sense of responsibility to the future. When all temporal boundaries arc arbitrary, one can draw them as close to one's immediate interests as desired. The problems of the past are dead, and the problems of the future can take care of themselves. We have a kind of intergenerational libertarianism at work. Once the entropic concept of irrevocability is discarded, all generations are created equal; each has an equal right and responsibility to maximize its own welfare. Also, the two concepts of time lead to different approaches to the study and use of history in social analysis. In the uniformitarian view, historical and contemporary social processes are homologous. Thus one can and presumably should follow Santayana's advice and apply the lessons of history exactly to today's problems. In the thermodynamic view, history is evolutionary, and all events are essentially unprecendented. The relationship of past system behavior to present and future behavior is metaphorical but not homologous. Once one abandons uniformitarianism and embraces the thermodynamic concept of Time, things become messy and sometimes painful. The cause of a current problem may lie in the distant past, and therefore may be insoluble by current actions. The solution to a problem within one future time horizon may contain the seeds of catastrophe in a longer time horizon. Conversely, a near-term disaster may be the best hope for the long-term future. The study of history is no longer a search for precedents but a quest for understanding the causal relationships between system structure and behavior. System dynamics is intensely affected by the ambiguity of the scientific conception of time. Philosophically, the methodology is highly thermodynamic. The nonuniformitarian perspective discussed in the preceding paragraphs is common to the basic literature of system dynamics. But the treatment of time in the programming of system dynamics models is strictly Newtonian. This contradiction may be a serious flaw or a creative synthesis. Certainly some of the important controversies about system dynamics are directly related to its ambiguous time concept. One of these issues, and perhaps the most important. is the matter of irreversibility. System dynamics models at least conceptually can be run backwards to produce exactly the same trajectory in reverse. (In practice, round-off error would cause some divergence, but a sufficiently large computer and sufficiently small time increment, dt, usually could make this effect insignificant.] The problem is that the behavior so described is patently unrealistic from a thermodynamic perspective (the

80

L.J. Perelman,

Time ill system dynamics

spilled milk flowing back into the bottle) and if pressed far enough will generate impossible historical events (the milk bottle eventually forcing its contents back into the cow). This kind of reverse projection was used by Cole and others of the Sussex group to attack the validity of the WORLD 2 and WORLD 3 models (F orrester , 1971; Meadows et al., 1972; Cole et al., 1973, p. 113). Meadows and his associates responded by arguing that running the models backwards simply violated the rules of the methodology, ignored attributes of the computation process, and therefore proved nothing (Cole et al., 1973, .p, 221). In exploring the same example, Wils and Senge (1973) tied the thermodynamic paradox of reverse projection to the properties of "forward convergent" models; that is, models in which certain relationships among state variables converge to an equilibrium value which is essentially independent of initial conditions. Relating reverse projection to the information theory version of the Entropy Law, Wils and Senge observed:
... The convergence of state trajectories is an en tropic process in the following sense. Given any finite amount of uncertainty in the precise system state, as the trajectories converge, our ability to know where the system came from diminishes. This occurs because the number of different trajectories which fall within our range of uncertainty increases with time. Conversely, when time runs backwards, the second law of thermodynamics predicts that information will always increase. If a forward convergent system is run backwards, our knowledge of the past history of the system increases as the trajectories diverge. As time moves backwards past history becomes less ambiguous because, for any finite range of uncertainty in the current state, the number of possible state trajectories within that range decreases.

In other words, even when ordinary computational noise is eliminated, reverse projection of models which are forward convergent (a common but not essential feature) ultimately must force the system state description beyond the limits of irreducible uncertainty because of the logic of the Entropy Law. Reverse projection inevitably requires the creation of new information, a process of which no computer is capable. This is precisely the error introduced by the uniformitarian hypothesis, which assumes conservation of information throughout all states of the system. At least in forward convergent models, the conceptual error of using Newtonian time generally will not be evident in forward projections; while the total information content actually is conserved, the growing surplus of information usually has no obvious effect on the output of the model. On the other hand, the information deficit implied by reverse projection ultimately becomes egregious as the projection is extended before t = 0, that is, as the computer begins to add information to what the modeler supplied. But the problem of reversibility or irreversibility runs deeper. Many of the critics of the WORLD models have observed that system dynamics does not authentically represent social behavior because the model systems do not "learn." That is, the systems do not alter their own structure in response to past experience or in anticipation of future problems. (The critics presume real social systems do this; pessi-

L1. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

81

mists might debate it, but the view is at least plausible.) Even when the modeled systems pass points of crisis or catastrophe, they continue to carry out the same set of policies established initially. Because the model has "learned" nothing in the course of its run, it can be run backwards and will unwind the identical sequence of events in reverse. (This is disregarding the errors mentioned above.) In simple terms, system dynamics models change, but they do not evolve. (An excellent discussion of this distinction is in Watzlawick et al., 1974.) Partly in response to this problem, Mesarovic and Pestel (1974) developed an alternative methodology for studying the Club of Rome's "problematique humaine." Using more complicated coding and man-machine interaction, their methodology permitted simulation of adaptive social learning and evolutionary, irreversible types of system change. Making system dynamics models irreversible is not intrinsically difficult. Several methodological tactics could achieve this, starting with the simple expedient of altering the DYNAMO compiler to prevent model reversal. But the problem may be very thorny to solve at its root, which is that the method uses reversible, mechanical time to describe the behavior of evolutionary, thermodynamic systems. The problem may be impossible to solve without radically transforming the basic methodology, and very possibly there by losing the method's elegant simplicity. This is illustrated by the efforts of Mesarovic and Pestel. Although their modeling method may refelct more closely the evolutionary behavior of thermodynamic systems, it does so at the cost of an extreme complexity which makes their model inscru table to those not directly involved in its construction, and therefore makes replication and counteranalysis by other researchers extremely difficult. Significantly, the policy implications of their "problernatique " study were virtually identical to those derived from the simpler and more accessible WORLD models of Forrester and Meadows. A practical approach to the problem of reversibility may be greater incorporation of gaming and Monte Carlo methods in system dynamics simulations. The "Debug" mode of DYNAMO also could be used to simulate some of the features of social learning. System dynamics models can be constructed so that behavioral goals are a function of the system's past history. This tactic does not fully capture the stochastic quality of evolutionary processes, but still may offer a more authentic simula,tion of social system behavior. In this case the problem becomes one of having an adequate hypothesis about the nature of social learning; getting a group of social scientists to agree on a proper hypothesis could be difficult. Perhaps these and other techniques can be combined to develop system dynamics models which authentically simulate the irreversible processes of social evolution. However, the simplicity and usefulness of system dynamics should be protected. We should keep in mind that just because the real world is irreversible, this does not mean that an irreversible model is necessarily better than a reversible one. The real world is irreversible because of the novelty introduced by spontaneous transformations, purchased at the ':OSt of growing entropy. Since novelty

82

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

necessarily cannot be predicted, no model ever can simulate true system evolution. The utility of system dynamics probably will be improved less by irreversible models than by practitioners sensitive to the ambiguous concept of time.

3. Time boundaries
The definition of problems and solutions in any system is dependent on the stipulation of the system's boundary. This is evidently so in the case of the geographical or topological boundary of the system. No less is it so in the case of the temporal boundary of a dynamic system. No scientist, engineer, or other problem-solver aspires to solve all of the universe's problems simultaneously. We draw boundaries around the systems that interest us in order to exclude a host of problems and focus our attention on a few or just one. We get away with this exclusion pretty well in the spatial dimensions, with time held constant. Most of the systems that concern us are approximately isolated, at least to the degree that we can specify exogenous inputs and disregard outputs of the system that go "elsewhere." The temporal boundary is more troubling; so much so that I sense most of us have difficulty recognizing, much less talking about it. The question of choosing temporal boundaries exists on two levels. At the superficial level, it is a rather dry, methodological issue: Over what time span shall the behavior of a particular system be studied? But this question also has meaning at a more profound level, leading us to ask: What is the role of the systems analyst? How does he relate to the systems he studies'? Of course, the mere existence of a field like system dynamics .as a profession, the fact of grants and contracts and consultations with decision-makers, implicitly raises such philosophical issues. But, for me, the simple act of defining temporal boundaries uniquely evokes the ethical, metaphysical, and social roots of the methodology. The existing literature of system dynamics contains very little discussion of the methodological issue of how one chooses the temporal boundary of a system to be modeled. The lack of commentary on the selection of temporal boundaries may be indicative of one of two things. Either the step is so trivial in the modeling process, it warrants little comment. Or the question entails psychologically disturbing factors which repel modelers from coming to grips with it. One of the few comments on the choice of temporal boundaries is this by Meadows et al. (1974, p. 90):
The time horizon of a model is the period over which the modeler is interested in the system's behavior. That period usually corresponds either to the time required for the system to manifest a behavior mode of interest or the time required for the system to respond fully to some proposed new set of policies.

What this suggests is that the selection of temporal boundary is as arbitrary as the selection of spatial boundary. But the more we think about this, the more we must realize it is not so.

--L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics 83

The definition of problems and solutions is necessarily an anthropocentric phenomenon. There are no problems in nature. Only humans (or whatever is the universal equivalent of verbally conscious, intelligent beings) have problems and seek to solve them. This already makes the temporal boundary troublesome. When we draw our system boundaries in space, we are comforted by two things. We can draw the spatial boundary so that it includes what concerns us and excludes what does not concern us. The definitions of the system and the problem are completely a function of the problem-solver's interest. And in a strong epistemological sense, we can know what our interests are. Because we can know what concerns us, we can proceed in some rational way to draw a system boundary which reflects our concern. The second thing that comforts us is that, as problem-solvers, we have many contemporaries, and among them are many who will disagree with us. Within a shared paradigm of values and concerns, debate and criticism regarding problem definition, spatial boundaries, and problem-solving procedures help each researcher to find solutions to the problems of general interest. Our contemporaries working in alternative paradigms assuage us with the knowledge that important problems we may have excluded from our system of interest are being attacked by someone else. In the time dimension we are on less secure ground. There is no way to define a time horizon for nonmechanical systems without raising questions about origin, destiny, purpose, and value. As soon as we take the question of defining the time horizon of a system seriously, we are plunged into ethics and metaphysics; and nothing could make a problem-solver who fancies himself "pragmatic" more uncomfortable.

3.1. Ethics and metaphysics of the time dimension
When we define the temporal horizons of a system, we get no disagreemcn t from either the dead or the unborn. Among both our precursors and our posterity, those who share our particular paradigm have no ability to correct our errors, and those whose concerns are different or contrary have no recourse in the present. Few cultures stress responsibility to the past; we speak facetiously about our actions making our ancestors "turn over in their graves," but we don't take the moral implications of this very seriously. The ethical dilemma of our relationship to posterity is more serious. Our posterity is totally at our mercy; our every act may influence their fate. At the same time, it is their condition that imbues our own existence with purpose. The choice of the future temporal boundary of any nonmechanical system is inevitably an ethical decision. We know the assumption that a system is spatially isolated breaks down at some level of precision, but it is a safe assumption for most practical purposes. The assumption that a system is temporally isolated is far more risky. The system must be excised from both its ancestry and its posterity. In the context of Newtonian time and causation this may be prudent. but in thermodynamic, evolutionary time and causation, it is perilous.

84

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

3.2. The case of "limits to growth"
One of the motives behind the research for the Club of Rome by Forrester and Meadows (Forrester, 1971; D.H. Meadows et al., 1972) was the fact that conventional econometric models either studied static situations, or made projections only a few months or years into the future. Within the time horizon of one to five years, the macro-problem of "limits to growth" simply does not appear. Within the 200year timespan Forrester and Meadows elected to study, limits to growth became evident. Many of the critics of their work picked on this issue. They argued that since conventional econometric models were not very accurate over a span of even a few months, the projections of Forrester and Meadows could not possibly be accurate over a century in advance. The counterargument was that conventional economics is too short-sighted; by discounting the future, it reduces the present value of the economic welfare of even our grandchildren to virtually nothing; and it disregards the long-term destructive consequences of short-term economic "progress." In a five-year time horizon, limits to growth are invisible; in a 200-year time horizon, they become evident. But in a longer time horizon, limits to growth may seem to disappear again. If one assesses the future prospects of humankind in the time frame of the expected lifetime of our planet and solar system (another several billion years), "this sort of time scale makes fears about the long-term effects of a nuclear war or of other disasters seem rather ridiculous" (Berry, 1974, p. 33). Even in a lO,OOO-year perspective, limits to growth do not seem to be much . of a problem. Within the next ten millenia, humankind conceivably will have acquired the ability to colonize most of this solar system, and perhaps will have discovered the means for rapid interstellar travel. Alternatively, if one dismisses the possibility of space colonization, the earth for the remainder of its expected lifetime must be considered closed, save for the flux of solar energy. The implication of the Entropy Law then becomes inescapable: The pet political platform of neoMalthusians, the establishment of J.S. Mills's "stationary state," is physically impossible. The assumption of a closed earth permits only declining futures for humankind and the only choice before us is between rapid decline and slow decline (see Georgescu-Roegen , 1975). Whatever the prospects may be for an extraterrestrial economy, simply thinking about the problem of growth limits in a time horizon much longer than a century compels us to consider a crucial question: If we were to succeed in establishing a global sta tionary state, then what'? The argument for demographic and economic equilibrium (the so-called neoMalthusian argument) presumes a moral obligation of the present generation to future generations. What is the temporal boundary of such an obligation? The answer appears paradoxical. Are we responsible for all future generations or only a limited number? If we conserve nonrenewable resources for all future generations, they never are used at all. In a sense, the future thus "colonizes" the present. But restricting our responsibility to N generations leaves the N + 1 generation holding

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

85

the bag. If we use our limited and irretrievable stores of low entropy at any nonzero rate, we ultimately must destroy them, depriving all future generations beyond the Nth of their use. Thus the present "colonizes" the future. If some future generation is going to be impoverished as a result of our prodigality, why not the next one? Why not abandon all future welfare for the sake of present enjoyment? Any assessment of the problem of limits to growth in a much longer time horizon than several decades complicates and perhaps undermines the rationale for neo-Malthusian advocacy of a stationary state. Consideration of the very-long-term future thus threatens the intellectual and political interests of many neo-Malthusians, including this author. Not surprisingly, many of us feel motivated to dismiss the relevance of the very long term. But is our disregard for the very -long-term perspective intellectually sound? Meadows et al. present a two-point argument for omitting the distant future from current analyses. Specifically, in the development of the WORLD 3 model, it was decided not to extend the analysis beyond the year 2100 "because the validity of many important assumptions sor far into the future is questionable and because information about developments that might occur beyond the year 2100 could have little impact on present-day decisions." (D.L. Meadows et al., 1974, p. 9.) The first reason given is technically true but is not a valid justification for abandoning consideration of the very long term. All our assumptions and beliefs about the future are probabilistic in nature. To each we implicitly or explicitly assign a probability, form zero to 100%, reflecting our confidence in its proving correct. Our confidence in any assumption about the future generally decreases as we probe further ahead in Time. Undeniably, many if not most of our assumptions become highly questionable beyond the medium to long term. But it is important to keep in mind that many assumptions retain a high level of our confidence well into the very long term. The assumption that our sun will explode in about 6 billion years is one of these; the assumption that the Entropy Law will continue to be valid in our sector of the universe is another. Modern physics, astronomy, biology, and geology have provided us with "information" about the most distant horizons of Time in which we have significant if not perfect confidence. This kind of knowledge is germane to many current economic, political, and personal decisions. Energy policies are formulated on the basis of knowledge about the very -long-term life cycles of fossil fuels or decay times of radioactive materials. Industrial projects are delayed or blocked in consideration of the evolutionary significance of endangered species or unique geological formations. Very-long-term persisten t poUution and climatological trends are matters of serious public interest. Men send messages by radio or spececraft to unknown civilizations many light years away. The second of these reasons, that very-long-term studies have little impact, seems false to me and I believe few futurists would accept it as valid. A widely respected book by Polak (1973) argues that the "image of the future" has a profound influence on a society's day-to-day behavior. OUf ordinary human experience

86

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

supports this view. The existence of organized religions demonstrates how relevant conceptions of the distant future are to contemporary human decisions. The evidence is overwhelming that our beliefs about the future profoundly affect our current actions, regardless of how rational or irrational, probable or improbable our beliefs may be. Even the belief that the very-long-term future is inscrutable or irrelevant to present decisions has a significant impact. Students of system dynamics must recognize that the stipulation of temporal boundaries is not an arbitrary or trivial act. The choice of time horizons is an expression of an intimate, personal image of the future. The choice inevitably raises the dilemma of the individual researcher's relationship and responsibility to future generations. There is no single or simple solution to this dilemma. However, a minimal approach for the purposes of system dynamics would be to establish a set of ethical criteria for defining "reasonable" time constants in model construction. At least modelers should make their personal values and judgment of long-term responsibility explicit.

4. Time in practice Were system dynamics purely an abstract, self-contained intellectual activity, the temporal boundary issue would be of little importance. Because system dynamics is also a political process (a process for creating policies), temporal boundaries are crucial. Current political forces assure some "balance of power" in the spatial! structural dimensions of modeling. But the temporal dimension is regulated only by the time horizons of current political incentive structures. System dynamics' very tlexibility increases the burden on its practitioners. Other policy research methods have intrinsic obstacles to employing very large (or very small) time constants, making temporal boundary questions largely moot. Since system dynamics models can incorporate time constants of virtually any size, questions of the scope and meaning of time are unavoidable, even if they be answered by default. The system dynamics researcher does not ply his trade in a vacuum. On the contrary, professional system dynamicists are overwhelmingly concerned with influencing social policy. This being so, applying a mathematical scalpel to the line of Time and carving out an interval of "interest" is also defining a zone of responsibility. Since there is no way to receive feedback from either the past or future, this is a double responsibility because each analyst must enforce it himself. Many of us deprecate the conventional econometrician's habit of discounting the future, and of dealing with a time horizon of a few months or at most a couple of decades. But who is to say that a time horizon of 50, 100, or 300 years is not "shortsighted"? Perhaps we should be considering time constants of 1,000, or 10,000, or a billion years. Intuitively, we feel this is impracticable or incorrect. But there is now no methodological justification for omitting very-long-term considerations from the development of current policies. Such a justification would be, in

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

87

effect, an ergodic theory of history: Beyond a certain span of time, no difference makes any difference. If we want to lean on such a theory, Forrester's philosophy of system dynamics seems to require that it be made explicit. So far, this has not been done. Perhaps the main reason for the tendency to dismiss very-long-term behavior modes from models is not because the resulting policies would make no difference in the long run but rather that they would make no difference in the short run. That is, system dynamicists are probably disinclined to deal with problems in more than a 50- to 100-year time horizon because the grant/ contract/ consulting market offers no incentive for doing so. The aftermath of the WORLD 2 and WORLD 3 efforts indicates little effective demand for the services of those who want to solve even the next century's crises. As a rule of thumb, we can say that the lucrativeness of policy research as a vocation is inversely proportional to the largest time constant of the problems attacked. Consultants who can increase a corporation's profits in the next quarter are likely to acquire a more prodigious income than those who, perhaps, can increase the survival chances of the corporation president's grandchildren. System dynamics must be addressed primarily as a practical tool of policy management, and as part of a very imperfect and very human political process. The major concern of system dynamics practitioners today is the interface between theory and practice. Inspired by Forrester, students of system dynamics have little interest in model-building as an academic enterprise but urgently want the method's products to influence the policy management process. Bridging the gap between theory and practice is a matter of over-riding interest. Concepts and boundaries of time can be viewed as an extremely abstract, almost ethereal subject. Yet the meaning and treatment of time is an important pragmatic issue in the application of system dynamics in practice. In fact, the common problems related to time that practitioners encounter in using system dynamics are so mundane that they may be difficult to connect to the theoretical issues discussed above. For example, not long ago I recommended to the director of the state agency in which I was employed that we do a fairly limited system dynamics study of several long-term trends relevant to our area of responsibility. My proposal was based on my desire to adapt a model already developed as an academic exercise (at Dartmouth) in order to bring it into the policy-making process. I felt that the model had produced some useful insights and should be applied to decision-making in our state. My director's response was: Since no one can predict what will happen in the next 30 years, there was no reason to spend the taxpayers' dollars on studying our policies over such a long time period. The simplistic but common currency of the policy management process is good and bad results, and these are always a function of Time. Decision-makers in real organizations define their problems in terms of good and bad outcomes in the framework of their own peculiar short and long-term objectives. Within this world

88

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

of mundane choices, the temporal quality and structure of a model significantly determines the kind of advice the decision-maker will derive from it. This is a practical and ethical problem for the policy analyst and planner. One of my previous employers sought analysis and recommendations on alternative actions he could and had to take. As a staff analyst, I believed policy options should be evaluated in a time frame of several decades, at least. My director (an experienced and respected administrator) chose to evaluate them in a time frame of several months - particularly the time from the present to the next election. His view was not cynical, but simply practical. Bridging this kind of gap is vital to the success of system dynamics in affecting political decisions. There is no simple solution to this problem but I believe better understanding of the nature of the architecture of Time in the study of system dynamics would be helpful.

5. Conclusion Studied seriously, the time dimension of system dynamics raises many questions about the meaning of models, about their role in the policy management process, and about the profession of the modeler. Practitioners and theorists of the field need to pursue these questions more deeply and thoroughly than I have been able to here. Our current understanding of time in system dynamics is sharply divided between the pragmatic knowledge of modelers, analysts, and policy makers and the subtle theoretical knowledge of philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, and other scholars who have specialized in the study of time. Both sources must be tapped to improve the treatment of time in system dynamics as it is applied in practice. Meanwhile, we should recognize that the conception of time and the choice of temporal boundaries in modeling dynamic systems are methodological expressions of the modeler's intimate image of the future. Such elements of the modeling process should not be treated lightly; these images of the future have a profound influence on personal and social life. Students of the field should be encouraged to approach the time dimension of system dynamics with sensitivity, reflection, and some caution.

References
Berry, A., 1974. The Next Ten Thousand Years (Saturday Review Press, New York). Cole, H.S.D., C. Freeman, J. Jahoda and K.L.R. Pavitt, 1973, Models of Doom: A Critique of the Limits to Growth (Universe Books, New York). Forrester, I.W., 1968, Principles of Systems, Second Preliminary Edition (Wright-Allen Press, Cambridge, Mass.). Forrester, I.W., 1971, World Dynamics (Wright-Allen Press, Cambridge, Mass.), Georgescu-Roegen , N., 1971, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.).

L.J. Perelman, Time in system dynamics

89

Georgescu-Roegen , N., 1975, Energy and economic myths, Southern Economic Journal (Jan.). Lee, D., 1973, Codifications of reality: Lineal and nonlineal, in: R.E. Ornstein, The Nature of Human Consciousness (Freeman, San Francisco, Calif.) 128--142. Meadows, D.H., D.L. Meadows, J. Randers and W.W. Behrens, 1972, The Limits to Growth (Universe Books, New York). Meadows, D.L., W.W. Behrens, D.H. Meadows, n.r. Naill, 1. Randers and E.K.O. Zahn, 1974, Dynamics of Growth in a Finite World (Wright-Allen Press, Cambridge, Mass.). Mesarovic, M. and E. Pestel , 1974, Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to the Club of Rome (Dutton/Reader's Digest Press, New York). Monod, J., 1971, Chance and Necessity (Knopf, New York). Polak, F., 1973, The Image of the Future, Translation by E. Boulding (Elsevier, New York). Watzlawick, P., J. Weakland and R. Fisch, 1974, Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution (Norton, New York). Wils, W.1. and P.M. Senge , 1973, Forward Convergent Systems (unpublished paper).

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful