The Ambiguity of Causal Loop Diagrams and Archetypes

I find causal loop diagramming to be a very useful brainstorming and presentation tool, but it falls short of what a model can do for you.

Here’s why. Consider the following pair of archetypes (Eroding Goals and Escalation, from wikipedia):

Eroding Goals and Escalation archetypes

Archetypes are generic causal loop diagram (CLD) templates, with a particular behavior story. The Escalation and Eroding Goals archetypes have identical feedback loop structures, but very different stories. So, there’s no unique mapping from feedback loops to behavior. In order to predict what a set of loops is going to do, you need more information.

Here’s an implementation of Eroding Goals:

Notice several things:

  • I had to specify where the stocks and flows are.
  • “Actions to Improve Goals” and “Pressure to Adjust Conditions” aren’t well defined (I made them proportional to “Gap”).
  • Gap is not a very good variable name.
  • The real world may have structure that’s not mentioned in the archetype (indicated in red).

Here’s Escalation:

The loop structure is mathematically identical; only the parameterization is different. Again, the missing information turns out to be crucial. For example, if A and B start with the same results, there is no escalation – A and B results remain constant. To get escalation, you either need (1) A and B to start in different states, or (2) some kind of drift or self-excitation in decision making (green arrow above).

Even then, you may get different results. (2) gives exponential growth, which is the standard story for escalation. (1) gives escalation that saturates:

The Escalation archetype would be better if it distinguished explicit goals for A and B results. Then you could mathematically express the key feature of (2) that gives rise to arms races:

  • A’s goal is x% more bombs than B
  • B’s goal is y% more bombs than A

Both of these models are instances of a generic second-order linear model that encompasses all possible things a linear model can do:

Notice that the first-order and second-order loops are disentangled here, which makes it easy to see the “inner” first order loops (which often contribute damping) and the “outer” second order loop, which can give rise to oscillation (as above) or the growth in the escalation archetype. That loop is difficult to discern when it’s presented as a figure-8.

Of course, one could map these archetypes to other figure-8 structures, like:

How could you tell the difference? You probably can’t, unless you consider what the stocks and flows are in an operational implementation of the archetype.

The bottom line is that the causal loop diagram of an archetype or anything else doesn’t tell you enough to simulate the behavior of the system. You have to specify additional assumptions. If the system is nonlinear or stochastic, there might be more assumptions than I’ve shown above, and they might be important in new ways. The process of surfacing and testing those assumptions by building a stock-flow model is very revealing.

If you don’t build a model, you’re in the awkward position of intuiting behavior from structure that doesn’t uniquely specify any particular mode. In doing so, you might be way ahead of non-systems thinkers approaching the same problem with a laundry list. But your ability to discover errors, incorporate data and discover leverage is far greater if you can simulate.

The model: wikiArchetypes1b.mdl (runs in any version of Vensim)

Loopy

I just gave Loopy a try, after seeing Gene Bellinger’s post about it.

It’s cool for diagramming, and fun. There are some clever features, like drawing a circle to create a node (though I was too dumb to figure that out right away). Its shareability and remixing are certainly useful.

However, I think one must be very cautious about simulating causal loop diagrams directly. A causal loop diagram is fundamentally underspecified, which is why no method of automated conversion of CLDs to models has been successful.

In this tool, behavior is animated by initially perturbing the system (e.g, increase the number of rabbits in a predator-prey system). Then you can follow the story around a loop via animated arrow polarity changes – more rabbits causes more foxes, more foxes causes less rabbits. This is essentially the storytelling method of determining loop polarity, which I’ve used many times to good effect.

However, as soon as the system has multiple loops, you’re in trouble. Link polarity tells you the direction of change, but not the gain or nonlinearity. So, when multiple loops interact, there’s no way to determine which is dominant. Also, in a real system it matters which nodes are stocks; it’s not sufficient to assume that there must be at least one integration somewhere around a loop.

You can test this for yourself by starting with the predator-prey example on the home page. The initial model is a discrete oscillator (more rabbits -> more foxes -> fewer rabbits). But the real system is nonlinear, with oscillation and other possible behaviors, depending on parameters. In Loopy, if you start adding explicit births and deaths, which should get you closer to the real system, simulations quickly result in a sea of arrows in conflicting directions, with no way to know which tendency wins. So, the loop polarity simulation could be somewhere between incomprehensible and dead wrong.

Similarly, if you consider an SIR infection model, there are three loops of interest: spread of infection by contact, saturation from running out of susceptibles, and recovery of infected people. Depending on the loop gains, it can exhibit different behaviors. If recovery is stronger than spread, the infection dies out. If spread is initially stronger than recovery, the infection shifts from exponential growth to goal seeking behavior as dominance shifts nonlinearly from the spread loop to the saturation loop.

I think it would be better if the tool restricted itself to telling the story of one loop at a time, without making the leap to system simulations that are bound to be incorrect in many multiloop cases. With that simplification, I’d consider this a useful item in the toolkit. As is, I think it could be used judiciously for explanations, but for conceptualization it seems likely to prove dangerous.

My mind goes back to Barry Richmond’s approach to systems here. Causal loop diagrams promote thinking about feedback, but they aren’t very good at providing an operational description of how things work. When you’re trying to figure out something that you don’t understand a priori, you need the bottom-up approach to synthesize the parts you understand into the whole you’re grasping for, so you can test whether your understanding of processes explains observed behavior. That requires stocks and flows, explicit goals and actual states, and all the other things system dynamics is about. If we could get to that as elegantly as Loopy gets to CLDs, that would be something.

Aging is unnatural

Larry Yeager and I submitted a paper to the SD conference, proposing dynamic cohorts as a new way to model aging populations, vehicle fleets, and other quantities. Cohorts aren’t new*, of course, but Ventity makes it practical to allocate them on demand, so you don’t waste computation and attention on a lot of inactive zeroes.

The traditional alternative has been aging chains. Setting aside technical issues like dispersion, I think there’s a basic conceptual problem with aging chains: they aren’t a natural, intuitive operational representation of what’s happening in a system. Here’s why.

Consider a model of an individual. You’d probably model age like this:

Here, age is a state of the individual that increases with aging. Simple. Equivalently, you could calculate it from the individual’s birth date:

Ideally, a model of a population would preserve the simplicity of the model of the individual. But that’s not what the aging chain does:

This says that, as individuals age, they flow from one stock to another. But there’s no equivalent physical process for that. People don’t flow anywhere on their birthday. Age is continuous, but the separate stocks here represent an arbitrary discretization of age.

Even worse, if there’s mortality, the transition time from age x to age x+1 (the taus on the diagram above) is not precisely one year.

You can contrast this with most categorical attributes of an individual or population:

When cars change (geographic) state, the flow represents an actual, physical movement across a boundary, which seems a lot more intuitive.

As we’ll show in the forthcoming paper, dynamic cohorts provide a more natural link between models of individuals and groups, and make it easy to see the lifecycle of a set of related entities. Here are the population sizes of annual cohorts for Japan:

I’ll link the paper here when it’s available.


* This was one of the applications we proposed in the original Ventity white paper, and others have arrived at the same idea, minus the dynamic allocation of the cohorts. Demographers have been doing it this way for ages, though usually in statistical approaches with no visual representation of the system.

Dynamics of the last Twinkie

When Hostess went bankrupt in 2012, there was lots of speculation about the fate of the last Twinkie, perhaps languishing on the dusty shelves of a gas station convenience store somewhere in New Mexico. Would that take ten days, ten weeks, ten years?

So, what does this have to do with system dynamics? It calls to mind the problem of modeling the inventory stockout constraint on sales. This problem dates back to Industrial Dynamics (see the variable NIR driving SSR and the discussion around figs. 15-5 and 15-7).

If there’s just one product in one inventory (i.e. one store), and visibility doesn’t matter, the constraint is pretty simple. As long as there’s one item left, sales or shipments can proceed. The constraint then is:

(1) selling = MIN(desired selling, inventory/time step)

In other words, the most that can be sold in one time step is the amount of inventory that’s actually on hand. Generically, the constraint looks like this:

Here, tau is a time constant, that could be equal to time step (DT), as above, or could be generalized to some longer interval reflecting handling and other lags.

This can be further generalized to some kind of continuous function, like:

(2) selling = desired selling * f( inventory )

where f() is often a lookup table. This can be a bit tricky, because you have to ensure that f() goes to zero fast enough to obey the inventory/DT constraint above.

But what if you have lots of products and/or lots of inventory points, perhaps with different normal turnover rates? How does this aggregate? I built the following toy model to find out. You could easily do this in Vensim with arrays, but I found that it was ideally suited to Ventity.

Here’s the setup:

First, there’s a collection of Store entities, each with an inventory. Initial inventory is random, with a Poisson distribution, which ensures integer twinkies. Customer arrivals also have a Poisson distribution, and (optionally), the mean arrival rate varies by store. Selling is constrained to stock on hand via inventory/DT, and is also subject to a visibility effect – shelf stock influences the probability that a customer will buy a twinkie (realized with a Binomial distribution). The visibility effect saturates, so that there are diminishing returns to adding stock, as occurs when new stock goes to the back rows of the shelf, for example.

In addition, there’s an Aggregate entitytype, which is very similar to the Store, but deterministic and continuous.

The Aggregate’s initial inventory and sales rates are set to the expected values for individual stores. Two different kinds of constraints on the inventory outflow are available: inventory/tau, and f(inventory). The sales rate simplifies to:

(3) selling = min(desired sales rate*f(inventory),Inventory/Min time to sell)

(4) min time to sell >= time step

In the Store and the Aggregate, the nonlinear effect of inventory on sales (called visibility in the store) is given by

(5) f(inventory) = 1-Exp(-Inventory/Threshold)

However, the aggregate threshold might be different from the individual store threshold (and there’s no compelling reason for the aggregate f() to match the individual f(); it was just a simple way to start).

In the Store[] collection, I calculate aggregates of the individual stores, which look quite continuous, even though the population is only 100. (There are over 100,000 gas stations in the US.)

Notice that the time series behavior of the effect of inventory on sales is sigmoid.

Now we can compare individual and aggregate behavior:

Inventory

Selling

The noisy yellow line is the sum of the individual Stores. The blue line arises from imposing a hard cutoff, equation (1) above. This is like assuming that all stores are equal, and inventory doesn’t affect sales, until it’s gone. Clearly it’s not a great fit, though it might be an adequate shortcut where inventory dynamics are not really the focus of a model.

The red line also imposes an inventory/tau constraint, but the time constant (tau) is much longer than the time step, at 8 days (time step = 1 day). Finally, the purple sigmoid line arises from imposing the nonlinear f(inventory) constraint. It’s quite a good fit, but the threshold for the aggregate must be about twice as big as for the individual Stores.

However, if you parameterize f() poorly, and omit the inventory/tau constraint, you get what appear to be chaotic oscillations – cool, but obviously unphysical:

If, in addition, you add diversity in Store’s customer arrival rates, you get a longer tail on inventory. That last Twinkie is likely to be in a low-traffic outlet. This makes it a little tougher to fit all parts of the curve:

I think there are some interesting questions here, that would make a great paper for the SD conference:

  • (Under what conditions) can you derive the functional form of the aggregate constraint from the properties of the individual Stores?
  • When do the deficiencies of shortcut approaches, that may lack smooth derivatives, matter in aggregate models like Industrial dynamics?
  • What are the practical implications for marketing models?
  • What can you infer about inventory levels from aggregate data alone?
  • Is that really chaos?

Have at it!

The Ventity model: LastTwinkie1.zip

Data science meets the bottom line

A view from simulation & System Dynamics


I come to data science from simulation and System Dynamics, which originated in control engineering, rather than from the statistics and database world. For much of my career, I’ve been working on problems in strategy and public policy, where we have some access to mental models and other a priori information, but little formal data. The attribution of success is tough, due to the ambiguity, long time horizons and diverse stakeholders.

I’ve always looked over the fence into the big data pasture with a bit of envy, because it seemed that most projects were more tactical, and establishing value based on immediate operational improvements would be fairly simple. So, I was surprised to see data scientists’ angst over establishing business value for their work:

One part of solving the business value problem comes naturally when you approach things from the engineering point of view. It’s second nature to include an objective function in our models, whether it’s the cash flow NPV for a firm, a project’s duration, or delta-V for a rocket. When you start with an abstract statistical model, you have to be a little more deliberate about representing the goal after the model is estimated (a simulation model may be the delivery vehicle that’s needed).

You can solve a problem whether you start with the model or start with the data, but I think your preferred approach does shape your world view. Here’s my vision of the simulation-centric universe:

The more your aspirations cross organizational silos, the more you need the engineering mindset, because you’ll have data gaps at the boundaries – variations in source, frequency, aggregation and interpretation. You can backfill those gaps with structural knowledge, so that the model-data combination yields good indirect measurements of system state. A machine learning algorithm doesn’t know about dimensional consistency, conservation of people, or accounting identities unless the data reveals such structure, but you probably do. On the other hand, when your problem is local, data is plentiful and your prior knowledge is weak, an algorithm can explore more possibilities than you can dream up in a given amount of time. (Combining the two approaches, by using prior knowledge of structure as “free data” constraints for automated model construction, is an area of active research here at Ventana.)

I think all approaches have a lot in common. We’re all trying to improve performance with systems science, we all have to deal with messy data that’s expensive to process, and we all face challenges formulating problems and staying connected to decision makers. Simulations need better connectivity to data and users, and purely data driven approaches aren’t going to solve our biggest problems without some strategic context, so maybe the big data and simulation worlds should be working with each other more.

Cross-posted from LinkedIn

Dynamics of Term Limits

I am a little encouraged to see that the very top item on Trump’s first 100 day todo list is term limits:

* FIRST, propose a Constitutional Amendment to impose term limits on all members of Congress;

Certainly the defects in our electoral and campaign finance system are among the most urgent issues we face.

Assuming other Republicans could be brought on board (which sounds unlikely), would term limits help? I didn’t have a good feel for the implications, so I built a model to clarify my thinking.

I used our new tool, Ventity, because I thought I might want to extend this to multiple voting districts, and because it makes it easy to run several scenarios with one click.

Here’s the setup:

structure

The model runs over a long series of 4000 election cycles. I could just as easily run 40 experiments of 100 cycles or some other combination that yielded a similar sample size, because the behavior is ergodic on any time scale that’s substantially longer than the maximum number of terms typically served.

Each election pits two politicians against one another. Normally, an incumbent faces a challenger. But if the incumbent is term-limited, two challengers face each other.

The electorate assesses the opponents and picks a winner. For challengers, there are two components to voters’ assessment of attractiveness:

  • Intrinsic performance: how well the politician will actually represent voter interests. (This is a tricky concept, because voters may want things that aren’t really in their own best interest.) The model generates challengers with random intrinsic attractiveness, with a standard deviation of 10%.
  • Noise: random disturbances that confuse voter perceptions of true performance, also with a standard deviation of 10% (i.e. it’s hard to tell who’s really good).

Once elected, incumbents have some additional features:

  • The assessment of attractiveness is influenced by an additional term, representing incumbents’ advantages in electability that arise from things that have no intrinsic benefit to voters. For example, incumbents can more easily attract funding and press.
  • Incumbent intrinsic attractiveness can drift. The drift has a random component (i.e. a random walk), with a standard deviation of 5% per term, reflecting changing demographics, technology, etc. There’s also a deterministic drift, which can either be positive (politicians learn to perform better with experience) or negative (power corrupts, or politicians lose touch with voters), defaulting to zero.
  • The random variation influencing voter perceptions is smaller (5%) because it’s easier to observe what incumbents actually do.

There’s always a term limit of some duration active, reflecting life expectancy, but the term limit can be made much shorter.

Here’s how it behaves with a 5-term limit:

terms

Politicians frequently serve out their 5-term limit, but occasionally are ousted early. Over that period, their intrinsic performance varies a lot:

attractiveness

Since the mean challenger has 0 intrinsic attractiveness, politicians outperform the average frequently, but far from universally. Underperforming politicians are often reelected.

Over a long time horizon (or similarly, many districts), you can see how average performance varies with term limits:

long

With no learning, as above, term limits degrade performance a lot (top panel). With a 2-term limit, the margin above random selection is about 6%, whereas it’s twice as great (>12%) with a 10-term limit. This is interesting, because it means that the retention of high-performing politicians improves performance a lot, even if politicians learn nothing from experience.

This advantage holds (but shrinks) even if you double the perception noise in the selection process. So, what does it take to justify term limits? In my experiments so far, politician performance has to degrade with experience (negative learning, corruption or losing touch). Breakeven (2-term limits perform the same as 10-term limits) occurs at -3% to -4% performance change per term.

But in such cases, it’s not really the term limits that are doing the work. When politician performance degrades rapidly with time, voters throw them out. Noise may delay the inevitable, but in my scenario, the average politician serves only 3 terms out of a limit of 10. Reducing the term limit to 1 or 2 does relatively little to change performance.

Upon reflection, I think the model is missing a key feature: winner-takes-all, redistricting and party rules that create safe havens for incompetent incumbents. In a district that’s split 50-50 between brown and yellow, an incompetent brown is easily displaced by a yellow challenger (or vice versa). But if the split is lopsided, it would be rare for a competent yellow challenger to emerge to replace the incompetent yellow incumbent. In such cases, term limits would help somewhat.

I can simulate this by making the advantage of incumbency bigger (raising the saturation advantage parameter):

attractiveness2

However, long terms are a symptom of the problem, not the root cause. Therefore it probably necessary in addition to address redistricting, campaign finance, voter participation and education, and other aspects of the electoral process that give rise to the problem in the first place. I’d argue that this is the single greatest contribution Trump could make.

You can play with the model yourself using the Ventity beta/trial and this model archive:

termlimits4.zip

Dead buffalo diagrams

I think it was George Richardson who coined the term “dead buffalo” to refer to a diagram that surrounds a central concept with a hail of inbound causal arrows explaining it. This arrangement can be pretty useful as a list of things to think about, but it’s not much help toward solving a systemic problem from an endogenous point of view.

I recently found the granddaddy of them all:

dead_buffalo

The dynamics of UFO sightings

The Economist reports on UFO sightings:

UFOdataThis deserves a model:

UFOs

UFOs.vpm (Vensim published model, requires Pro/DSS or the free Reader)

The model is a mixed discrete/continuous simulation of an individual sleeping, working and drinking. This started out as a multi-agent model, but I realized along the way that sleeping, working and drinking is a fairly ergodic process on long time scales (at least with respect to UFOs), so one individual with a distribution of behaviors over time or simulations is as good as a population of agents.

The model replicates the data somewhat faithfully:

UFOdistributionThe model shows a morning peak (people awake but out and about) and a workday dip (inside, lurking near the water cooler) but the data do not. This suggests to me that:

  • Alcohol is the dominant factor in sightings.
  • I don’t party nearly enough to see a UFO.

Actually, now that I’ve built this version, I think the interesting model would have a longer time horizon, to address the non-ergodic part: contagion of sightings across individuals.

h/t Andreas Größler.