Stopping a Disastrous Plan with Science: The Dynamics of Self-Interest

It’s a good thing that titles don’t come under copyright laws.

I admit, I didn’t come up with the part before the ‘:’ on my own. It actually comes from a YouTube video you’ll see the link to at the bottom of this post.

The main reason I’m using the title above is that I want this message in a bottle to point to something. Well, a few somethings.

Before we get to that though I’ll let you know where we are going. I would like you to take a walk of three steps with me, and I want to warn you that you’ll probably want to take some side trips as I point them out, but please save those for the end. I promise you can go down those paths PDQ after we finish these three little steps.

Step One:

The first step is a trip to the San Francisco Bay Model Museum.  We’ll go there virtually to save time. You won’t find any models of the Millennium Falcon in this museum, nor trains or cars either. There is only one model here… a model of the entire San Francisco Bay Ecosystem. The model itself covers almost 3 acres. You may wonder why someone would build a model of something like that where  you could almost walk out of the museum and see the real thing, but, in fact there was a really, really good reason.

A gentleman named John Reber had what he thought was a really cool idea. He was a persuasive fellow and convinced some politicians that everyone would be better off if we just put a dam across the bay. If you want details, you can look up “Reber Plan” on Wikipedia.

Now, this was in the late 1940s—long before computers had the capability to model something like that. The Army Corp of Engineers (ACE) proposed building a model of the Bay then testing the idea on a physical model. The studies indicated convincingly that it was a bad idea. So, the model cost taxpayers a chunk of money, but saved a huge amount of money, prevented an ecological nightmare and now the model still remains useful for testing other dynamics of the bay and it’s a cool museum to go to when you are in the area.

That was step one. Stay with me now. Okay?

Step Two:

For step two, I’ll introduce a travelling companion. Imagine, if you will, a superhero dressed in a costume (confusing to gender assignment) for whom I will assign the pronouns ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ (for the personal and possessive). As in… “Ze is MY superhero, I’ll dress hir however I like.”   :-/ The symbol upon hir—somewhat perplexing—chest incorporates the letters ‘IE’.

Look! Up in the ether, it’s a verb; it’s a noun. No! It’s the Imaginary Engineer.

Not all disasters—or potential disasters— are physical like the San Francisco Bay. The ACE recognized the bay as a complex system. The late 1940s were the early years of the discipline now called Systems Engineering, and the bay needed the concepts inherent in this, then new, interdisciplinary approach to solve the question of go or no go on the dam project

As Systems Engineering grew, its practitioners realized that the methods applied to LOTS of different situations. Some of them didn’t even need to be actual physical systems. :-O

Enter the Imaginary Engineer. (Cue Also Sprach Zarathustra—Strauss… Alex North remix)

The first notable success of the Imaginary Engineer came about ten years after the scrapping of the SF Bay project. Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula MS, landed a big contract with the Navy (USN) in 1970. As work progressed, change orders from the USN began to take a toll on Ingall’s workforce. The USN was willing to pay for the additional work, but not the additional cost due to burnout, exiting employees and new hiring & training of more Ingall’s workforce.

Ingalls used computer simulation to demonstrate the true cost of the change orders. The USN was not convinced and demanded changes in the model. The changes—when put in place—showed the cost as being even higher.

This convincing demonstration produced an amicable settlement. Ingalls estimation of the dollar value of the simulation to the company was between 170 and 350 million dollars. (Sterman, 2000, pp. 55-66)

So that is step two—the rise of the Imaginary Engineer.

{Okay, I also admit that I didn’t come up with the name of my superhero either. When I was finishing my Masters in Industrial Engineering (IE) that’s what the physical engineers (PE) called us.}

Step Three:

Isn’t it great that science gives us tools to evaluate and quantify these kinds of tricky questions? I’ll just bet the government is working on incorporating these kinds of tools into their decisions. What a bright future we have ahead!


I fear step three will be a bit more of a challenge.

When I left graduate school with an MBA and a Masters in Imaginary Engineering, I was excited about the opportunities to help improve working conditions, increase job productivity & satisfaction and build models that would help wise executives make good decisions for the good of the company and all stakeholders.

My five years of servitude with Company X as a glorified data monkey were a sad, rude awakening. What I struggled with—at all times—was executive demand for reports that supported their self-interest.

I was expected to:

  • Fudge reports
  • Build performance models that measured the wrong things, bringing no actual efficiencies
  • Produce analytics for sales props to show how savvy Co. X was (now) at learning from their mistakes and keep clients worth ¼ billion $ a year in revenue from leaving
  • Make bullet point lists

The political culture of self-interest controlled all. If you’ve never realized this culture is endemic, pervasive, and rampant in every institution of our society: Finance, Government/Political, Business, Legal… you are living in a dream.

The only way that the science of System Dynamics can be made to inform the public and influence public policy to stop disastrous plans like…

(Insert your favorite boondoggle here… possible examples might be Bailing out Finance Corporate Greed or Expecting Universal Healthcare to successfully co-exist with Corporate Insurance given penalties for not enrolling. See how I picked one from both sides of the political circus?)

…is to do it with a completely transparent, Wiki-style, non-profit, grass-roots business model. The collective effort to put something like this in place would be enormous.

IF we attempted this, we would find:

  • A major benefit would be just defining the problem in a way where everyone could contribute
    • Stakeholder buy-in
    • Big-picture viewpoint
  • The models would not be perfect
    • The process of improving them would build community understanding of the civic system
  • The powers that be would not like it

If you are still with me at the end of this journey of three steps, you can see that I’ve actually brought you to the beginning of a road—a road no one can walk alone.

I confess, I’m not sure people will join me on this road. Huge rifts—fomented by demagogues from all points of view—divide us as a nation here on Spaceship Earth.  I’m convinced we need this sort of multi-partisan, grass-roots watchdog if we are to ever thrive. If we don’t find paths that satisfy more than one side of our society at a time, we are doomed.

Call to action:

I hope archeologists of an alien race never find this post and shake their appendages in sorrow that it went ignored.

However, I’ve taken this as far as I am going to alone. I’m going to ask you to consider taking at least one more step on this road. Here are some choices:

  • Do more research and think about this
    • Google some of the ideas and links I’ve mentioned
      • See below for the Bay Model video
    • Share this blog post
    • Buy my book,  Sentients in the Maze: A Quiet Revolution, read it, review it (I hope you can get past the racy parts)
      • I’ll take this as a vote to ‘fund my movement’ and keep going myself
    • Follow and share my Chogan Swan Facebook page and engage in discussing these ideas. This will only work if it goes viral
    • Find another path that will accomplish the same goal

Whichever road you take, I hope it is a happy one for you.

Wouldn’t it be cool to have a revolution where nobody had to die?

Chogan Swan

For a trip to the SF Bay Model click the youtube link.

Sterman, J. D. (2000). Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World. Irwin McGraw-Hill.


2 Replies to “Stopping a Disastrous Plan with Science: The Dynamics of Self-Interest”

  1. There’s so much food for thought in this. While I hope many will read and share, I fear the masses of our society are too lazy, fearful and uncaring, to appreciate it. Lazy in the fact that to effect positive changes, we have to actually get up and DO something. Fearful in the aspect of having swallowed years, if not decades, of government and media lies. Uncaring in the very obvious fact of how little anyone reacts to travesty that does not directly involve themselves. The road less travelled has more weeds, and very few care to take the time and effort to pull them. You’re right, it can’t be done alone. I urge other’s to read and research for themselves, the very valuable ideas put forth here. -my humble opinion.

    1. Thanks, Malissie. These are some great observations. We all struggle with inertia in our own lives as well as when we face the world. It should keep us humble.

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