Why Create Models

with tags model -

Why create Models?

Models are abstract representations of some system. This abstraction needs to capture some useful essence in order to be valuable. However, why do we really create models?

The standard answer generally seems to be that we create models so as to predict the behaviour of the system in the future - and this in turn relates to our process of reaching a point where we can justifiably say that we feel that we understand the system in question.

While I do not refute this motivation, I believe that there is an equally important reason that is simply overlooked in most cases. That is, a model is an abstraction that is created so as to act as a scaffold that enables a particular pattern to become embodied within a newly forming or created system.

That is, the process of modeling is fundamental the creative process.

In a sense, this means that the models really are the bridge between holism and reductionism, between creativity and rationalisation, between development and understanding.

However, what is a model. To the creative artist the model can be a few broad brush strokes or underlying constructions that capture the essence of an image or the center-line and gesture of a figure. Whereas, to the physicist the model is a well defined set of equations or algorithms that enable the key measurable behaviour to be reproduced, with sufficient accuracy, based on a smaller set of initial conditions.

To the pure mathematician and the abstract artist the models are a thing of beauty in and of themselves that, in their own right, are worthy of being pursued.

What we seem to see is that at the one extreme the models are highly rigorous and exacting, whereas at the other extreme the models are very descriptive and free form. However, there is an application where models need to encompass, albeit milder expressions, of all of the above attributes: the development of complex systems. These might be complex computer software systems, socio-political systems, large scale engineering feats.

Part of what characterises these systems is that after the designing and implementing these systems, they need to be concrete functional (working) artifacts, yet at the same time these artifacts are new creations that did not exist before and that have been built up from simpler parts. In this setting the model becomes the bridge between the process of creating and the manifestation of a completed functional product. As such the model needs to incorporate a degree of the rigour and closure present in sciences, yet it needs to be simultaneously sufficiently flexible to match the creative process of exploration. Finally, this rigour and flexibility needs to combined into a single process that enables its application to be viable and effective. Additionally, in order to understand the development and evolution of complex systems (natural or man-made) we need to understand how models are related back to the systems.

Thus, it seems that models are the bridge enabling us to direct the creative process so as to move from a blank canvas to a responsive and functioning concrete artifact. The corollary being that understanding how models are related back to their complex systems will be the bridge that enables us to gain insight into how systems evolve, change and develop.

Written by Stewart Gebbie
Later article
Seeing Systems