As a result of attending a meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in July 2010, I was encouraged to write an article for Cybernetics and Human Knowing. This article, entitled  A Cybernetic Approach to Economics, (cut and paste version at the end of this introduction exists) was published in December 2010. At the 'Continental Dialog meeting hosted by the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome (CACOR) in June 2011, Roberto Peccei and Heitor Gurgolino de Souza encouraged me to write an outline of the first step in the modeling project proposed in the paper.
CACOR hosted an symposium on new economic thinking in October 2011 that featured a panel discussion involving Ian Johnson, Roberto Peccei, Peter Victor (an ecological economist at York University and author of Managing without Growth), Derek Paul (Professor of Physics Emeritus, University of Toronto), and Robert Hoffman. I will keep you posted as output from the symposium becomes available.
Recently, I came across the work of Elinor Ostrom, an institutional economist and Nobel laureate (2009) who has written on the subject of managing the commons. This body of work is published in the following three books and numerous professional papers.
Ostrum, Elinor. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ostrum, Elinor. (2005). Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hess, Charlotte & Ostrom, Elinor (eds). (2011). Understanding Knowledge as Commons: From Theory to Practice.Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Her research addresses the nature of institutions that have successfully managed local common-pool resources such as fisheries or water resources. She also studies the processes from which these institutions emerged. I think there is much to be learned from this body of work when applied at the scale of the 'global commons'.
A Cybernetic Approach to Economics might be of interest to CADMUS readers. Cybernetics and Human Knowing will permit re-publication provided that attribution is given to the original publication. It is clear that there is little overlap between the intended readership of the two journals.
Robert Hoffman

Notes on a project proposal for the development of a proof-of-concept systems model as an expression of new economic thinking.


Robert Hoffman

Club of Rome and what If? Technologies


May 31, 2011




The substance and rational for a new approach to economics is outlined in A Cybernetic Approach to Economics by Robert Hoffman, published in Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 2010. The proposed cybernetic approach is intended to address the following issues – none of which has been or can be satisfactorily addressed from within the existing paradigm of mainstream neo-classical economic theory:

  • Impending ecological limits exemplified by peak oil and climate change

    The conflict between the goals of economic growth and sustainability

    The inadequacy GDP per capita as an indicator of social well-being or prosperity

    The instabilities associated with financial bubbles

    The growing inequity in the distribution of income both within and between nations


It is proposed that economics is more appropriately framed as a ‘management of the commons’ problem rather than a global optimizing problem. (Hardin, 1968).This proposed formulation is concerned with the allocation of the benefits to be derived from a finite and diverse natural resource base distributed unevenly in space base to the population to be supported by it. The amount of benefit to be derived from the commons depends upon the existence and effectiveness of the processes needed to transform the natural resource of the commons into goods capable of yielding the services needed by people. Production in this framing of economics consists of the transformation of materials using energy and know-how.


Framing economics as a management of the commons problem implies that economics must be seen through the lens of complex evolutionary systems:  Evolutionary, because evolution at both the biologic and social levels is a process in which knowledge creation plays a key role. Complex, because there are multiple commons at various geographical scales consisting of a wide range of naturally occurring processes yielding resources with differing physical properties with the consequence that there is an equally large number of processes and process chains for transforming materials and energy. Further there are a large number of economic agents that own, control and influence the commons. Complexity also arises because of potential non-linearities in the relationships among the variables.


Unlike global optimizing problems, which have elegant mathematical properties and lend themselves to analytic solutions, complex systems may be best understood using simulation techniques (Berlinski, 2000; Casti, 1997). The development of such a simulation model is the subject of proposed project.


Project objectives


  • Design and implement a simulation model as proof-of-concept for the cybernetic approach to economics.


  • Create and document a set of scenarios designed to illustrate important features of the model as they may apply to the global issues identified by and of concern to the Club of Rome.


  • Make the model and the scenarios accessible to key institutions concerned with global issues and the formulation of public policy.


  • Complete this project one year from start-up.



Project Ingredients


  1. Institutional base

The proposed project needs an institutional home in an established centre in the field of complex systems modeling. The centre should be able to provide managerial leadership, financial accountability and administrative support for the project. It should be eligible for funding from academic sources and foundations. It is important that the institution be part of a network of institutions that have programs in the area of complexity science and new approaches to economic thinking. The complex systems modeling program proposed at the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation (WICI) would be well placed given the linkage between the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) at the University of Waterloo. Other institutions with capabilities and interests might include the Santa Fe Institute, IIASA, Potsdam Institute, and Wuppertal Institute.


  1. Team of experts for model and scenario design and oversight.

This team will meet two or three times over the course of the project, initially to guide the design of the model, then to critique the model once a first version has been implemented and finally to guide the creation of a number of scenarios. This team should consist of a dozen of the best and most creative thinkers in the field, not restricted to those within the discipline of economics. Thomas Homer-Dixon (Waterloo), Stuart Umpleby (GWU), Roger Bradbury (ANU), and Martin Lees (CoR) had agreed to participate in the project as it was proposed in the first round of INET grants. Other members might be drawn from the Club of Rome, the Santa Fe Institute, INET, the Capital Institute, or the community of ecological economists.


  1. Implementation team

The team at whatIf? Technologies, now consisting of half a dozen experienced modelers with backgrounds in mathematics, computer science, physics, engineering and economics could realize the proposed model. Over the past two decades, this team has created in excess of fifty simulation models and a powerful suite of software tools and methods for designing, implementing, calibrating and operating simulation models. This experience includes a number of biophysical models including the Australian Stocks and flows Framework developed in collaboration with CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, the Canadian Energy Systems Simulator, developed in collaboration with Natural Resources Canada, the National Research Council, the Canadian Energy Research Institute and the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary, and the global systems simulator, a model that serves as proof-of-concept for some of the elements of the proposed model.


  1. Funding

A ball park estimate of funding requirements for the project is $500,000. This estimate allows $150,000 for an honorarium and travel expenses for the expert team members, $200,000 for the implementation team, and $150,000. for institutional overhead.

PS. I do not know the present status of the above project. RS/Blogger

Above Ref Source