The Systems Scientist

Original publication date: April 2015

My name is Matt Johnson and I am an undergraduate of Systems Science at Iowa State University. My degree program is housed in the department of Interdisciplinary Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Although my degree program is systems science, my focus and interests reside in the sub-discipline urban dynamics, which was first proposed by Jay W. Forrester in his book Urban Dynamics.

You may be asking, “What is a systems scientist?” Systems scientists are those scientists who are interested in systems and who apply the scientific method to systems. For example, systems scientists are interested in biological systems, political systems, economic systems, social systems, and the combination of such systems, just to name a few. My discipline of urban dynamics incorporates economic, political, social (cultural), and technological systems, although I have not incorporated technological systems into my abstract modeling yet.

My field, Systems science, is a sub-field of Ludwin Von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory (GST), which emerged out of Biology about 6 decades ago. Systems science utilizes stochastic and chaotic applications of mathematics to model different types of systems and analyze their behavior. Systems scientists also use knowledge derived from economics, anthropology, psychology, and/or sociology (for social systems), and philosophy to understand and think about the structures and dynamics of systems. In short, systems science is an interdisciplinary field with a lot of potential, and it will drastically change the self-perspective of humanity and increase humanity’s self-actualization as more and more systems scientists are born and move out to the public forum and industry, and systems science becomes a part of the human consciousness.

My field is a young field and currently there are less than five systems science programs in all of north America. These programs are graduate level programs. No undergraduate programs exist. So how am I an undergraduate of systems science? Good question.

I was a relatively new mathematics student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College in Minneapolis, Minnesota during the unfortunate death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman. This event followed by other similar events would eventually lead me from mathematics into something a bit different. I loved mathematics and I appreciated the field and the many wonderful mathematicians (and statisticians) that I had met throughout my academic career, but I wanted something a bit different; something a bit unusual and new; and something that would help me to address and articulate scientifically some of the perceived, or observed perceptions if you prefer, discrepancies in the United States system.

One day, an acquaintance gave me a book written by Peter Senge, systems thinker, called The Fifth Discipline. Soon after that, I found and read Derek Cabrera’s dissertation Systems Thinking (If you are familiar with Derek Cabrera and his DSRP theory, then you will see much of the DSRP influence in my writings.). While this was happening, another acquaitance provided me with information explaining how I could create my own program through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.  I jumped at the opportunity and with the help and guidance of George E. Mobus of the University of Washington, Tacoma, Wayne Wakeland of Portland State University, and Elanor Taylor, Betsy Hoffman, and Wolfgang Kliemann of Iowa State Univeristy, my undergraduate program was born.

Because my program is new and unique, it acts similar to that of a graduate program. Thus, I work with a distinguished group of thinkers and professionals. This group is called the Faculty Review Board. These are my board members:

  • Dr. Wolfgang Kliemann, Vice President of Research, professor of mathematics
  • Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Hoffman, professor of economics
  • Dr. Elanor Taylor, assistant professor of philosophy
  • Dr. Chaoqun Lu, assistant professor of ecology

My program incorporates a substantial amount of mathematics (especially dynamical forms of mathematics), philosophy, and economics. For example, some of the program courses include differential equations, chaos theory, probability theory, set theory, game theory, philosophy of science, metaphysics, and a designed, independent systems science thesis course. Moreover, following in the foot steps of many of the systems scientist who came before me, I will be incorporating macroecology and its dynamical systems principles into my program and modeling . Finally, my program includes an undergraduate thesis which is where my interests in urban dynamics resides. But beyond all of these program necessities, my program incorporates quite a bit of outside, independent reading. Many of those books can be found on the Readings page on this website.

My main objective, besides graduate school, which will happen, is to incorporate and merge the social and empirical sciences as a systems scientist while weaving social justice issues and challenges, along with environmental considerations and efficacy, into a new philosophical and scientific paradigm, or zeitgeist if you prefer, for the urban environment. But I also recognize that I follow in the footsteps of systems scientists such as Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, Niklas Luhmann, Jay W. Forrester, Donella Meadows, Yaneer Bar-Yam, George E. Mobus, Wayne Wakeland, Peter Senge, Derek Cabrera, Michael Strevens and all of the other systems scientists, thinkers, and philosophers who have come before me.

At the moment, I have two semesters left as an undergraduate at Iowa State University. If you have any questions or comments concerning my program or field of interest, please contact me at mrj@iastate.edu.

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