This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Systems Thinking: Recursion for Reconfiguration and Re-conceptualization

In the beginning, this learning platform, consisting of this blog, the related wiki, mindmap and diigo group, was to be designed so that it incorporated three principles.

First, it is targeted toward someone without experience and only minimal knowledge of economic or community development. Someone who is just getting the notion that they could make a better and more fully livable community and wants to start taking the necessary steps to do so, at least in the ideal sense.  Getting to that level of simplicity through the inherent complexity defining the involved challenges is an ongoing endeavor.

Second, this site will seek to help write the rules so that the new paradigms for communities can be chosen rather than imposed. It may be more of a matter of finding ways to break the old rules without losing everything but it definitely takes new systematic ways of thinking.

Third, part of the motivation to start this blog was to explore means of collaboration in public arenas, not only within specific focused public arenas but also across different arenas and more importantly incorporating a policy of expanded inclusiveness while maintaining project or program effectiveness. While there are still no real world examples of new community paradigms being implemented, the resources required to begin making them are readily available so the work continues.

This has been both an experimental and exploratory effort. It has also been a matter of recursion, consistently taking steps backwards to drill deeper into ideas, reconfigure concepts and re-conceptualize different systems. Each newly discovered resource whether it be an organization, movement, piece of knowledge, or application often necessitated going back and recalibrating the relationship of all of the pieces to the whole in a systematic way. The inclusion of Systems Thinking is seen as a means of improving this process.

The last blog post on New Community Paradigms Thinking Requires Systems Thinking initiated an overhaul of the New Community Paradigms Systems Mindmap clarifying the hierarchy and definitions of the various cross connections.  Some of those connections were dropped, reinvented or redefined. Possibilities for the future were also discovered with connections of Systems Thinking to Governance by Community and Policy Creation.

More specific to the concept of Systems Thinking as a component of Community Management and Technology was an updating of the resources at the Systems Thinking Approaches wiki-page. While the majority of the resources come from the Systems Thinking World Wiki, a new organization Systems Thinking Collaborative was added as a resource and two related articles that help make the case, as well as explain the difficulty, in making Systems Thinking an important component of new community paradigms were also included.

What is systems thinking? (Part I, Part II & Part III) « quantum shifting

Solving Wicked Problems: Using Systems Thinking in Design | Design on GOOD

 A number of Systems Thinking related applications are also included.
  • Insight Maker
    • Support the continued evolution and use of this FREE web based multi-user modeling & simulation environment. 
Systems Thinking could be a valuable collaborative tool for direct deliberative democratic discourse and less adversarial in nature than our current form of local politics.  It could also help in focusing on solutions rather than positions, assisting in addressing many of the technical based challenges, e.g. traffic, other infrastructure and budgets we face.

In regards to paradigm shifts, this effort has the audacity to propose that paradigm shifts within the governance of our communities is what is needed.  It is still a fledgling argument but believed to be a worthwhile one for a few reasons.  

First, we are now aware of Thomas Kuhn’s insight from "The Nature of Scientific Revolutions" where he indicated it to be a waste of time and energy to convey new paradigms to the current generation, being better to convey new paradigms to the next generation and writing off the current generation.  We are not stuck with it as before.  We should cognitively be able to anticipate that there will be paradigm shifts.  

Second, we have been living through a number of paradigm shifts with the World Wide Web and other transformations with more anticipated.  

Third, we are not going to truly address many of our challenges, particularly in the fields of economic development or community building by merely recycling old ideas. We need fundamental change that reconfigures and re-conceptualizes our overall approach.  There are numerous innovative ideas addressing extensive challenges out there but they need a means of integrating them into a manageable  process without the interference of political egos. (Means one still needs a way to overcome the political egos, working on it).

Systems Thinking will, no doubt, be more of a problematic paradigm shift in thinking for many people.  Peer effect models suggest that not everyone in a community though would have to be an expert to make it useful.  Some would only have to be comfortable with it, with those with expertise of various degrees helping with facilitation. It would have to be integrated into various academic fields such as public administration better over time but I suspect that that it could provide a greater opportunity for learning and be more self-reinforcing in a community environment.  There will always be some unwilling or uninitiated but they are not the real problem, which is instead those with a continuing stake in the old paradigms. 

Another cobblestone in the road.

Monday, May 13, 2013

New Community Paradigms Thinking Requires Systems Thinking

The creating and implementing of new community paradigms is far from easy and this difficulty has been recognized from the beginning of this endeavor. One reason, from a new community paradigms perspective, is getting enough of those making up a community engaged. This means first developing and providing a forum and process of community governance in lieu of the traditional form of local government institutions then getting those who have become disinterested, disenfranchised or disempowered engaged. The question of engagement has been discussed, to some degree, over the last two blog posts.

Developing new community paradigms requires new ways of looking at and thinking about our communities from multiple perspectives. The last post explored the idea of community engagement by drilling down to the individual level of participation. It also alluded to a more global, abstract, systems related perspective, raising the potential of bringing together two separate perspectives helping to make a whole.

The (upcoming) definition of community will be more of a matter of understanding as a system so will likely be more abstract and involve systems thinking in some aspect. This means taking a few steps back to understand ‘community’ and its ‘engagement’ within an environment as a system. Less passion and more analysis but for the purpose of better understanding where the passion needs to be directed.
New community paradigms must not only be able to incorporate separate perspectives (making a whole) but also different perspectives (diverging paths) and conflicting ones. This is not merely to achieve consensus or compromise but also to test old ideas, make new connections and generate innovative ideas. This is far less likely to happen using the standard system of local city governance conducted by most city halls.

This multiple perspective approach is necessary because the challenges facing communities have become increasingly complex. The Economist Intelligence Unit created a report investigating the rise of complexity in business and the challenges that increasing complexity creates. This is true of both the private and public sectors, though it can be argued that the private sector has made greater strides in addressing this than has the public sector.

To understand why, one must begin with there being an important difference between the ideas conveyed by the word complex and the word complicated. The two words are often used interchangeably in regular discourse and each word can be found in the formal definition of the other, but some have adopted using a more unique definition for each to differentiate them as separate systematic approaches.

I have borrowed this refined alternative etymology from a variety of sources. The first being this short TED video by Eric Berlow: How complexity leads to simplicity. This was featured in the blog post Why is this so hard? It's complicated and it's complex but that's OK which recognized the increasing, but not as insurmountable, challenge of complexity being faced by both private and public organizations. Other sources, found in a Google search, approached this from an English language and usage perspective and from more of a systems approach by way of Mike MacDonagh’s Blog.

According to this mode of thinking, complex systems can be seen as being intrinsic having many influencing parts. Complexity emphasizes interconnectedness. What is more important is that events consisting of the interaction of those interconnecting parts are not simply predictable. People are complex interacting in ways based on events and stimuli we can’t predict. Running a large project that involves numerous people as part of an organization is even more complex. Driving a car as an individual within a larger traffic system is also complex, increasing the number of cars during rush hour increases the complexity.

Complicated is more extrinsic and more prone to external influences. Complicated systems are often built upon expert, specialist or professional knowledge. This means that they can’t be done by most people. However, although they might require a great deal of time and skill they are ultimately predictable processes. A computer programming involving a recursive sorting algorithm is complicated, requiring the inclusion of variables, loops and recursion. Not everyone can do it. Regardless, it is still very predictable. Building a car engine is a complicated process.

Complicated should be easy if you can get the right skills properly allocated. Complex is always hard, at least our ability generally to manage it despite what seems to be an innate ability of humans to understand complexity.

Government institutions address the complex challenges facing communities by developing complicated processes. Initially, this makes sense as it provides a means of breaking up a complex challenge into manageable steps, providing the means of creating an algorithmic approach, and allocating resources.

It stops working though when the complexities of the larger system, in which the institution exists, outstrips the capacity of the locally created complicated system. It is made worse if the institutionally created complicated system develops its own inherent hinderances, as a means of ensuring its own survival, making it even more complicated and no longer for the benefit of those it was designed to serve. This can be true of either public or private institutions as reflected in this article by Gluu, a digital agency out of Denmark, on organizational complexity and what happens when Complexity brings paralysis.

We don't see it coming. What starts as a simple idea quickly becomes far more complex than anyone imagined. Before we know it all the good ideas lead to a form of paralysis.
If you look at each of the new ways of working and tools in isolation then most of them make sense. They are introduced by smart people with good intentions. The trouble is that when companies employ thousands of smart, highly paid people and then place them into the pigeonholes of a corporate hierarchy, then people do what they get paid for. From each of their pigeonholes they develop intricate systems, structures and processes that they broadcast to their colleagues.
What happens is that different department functions within City Hall become increasingly siloed from each other, from the public and even the political leadership itself, because of the cultural incentives created over time by the political legacy. Getting anything done, because it is inadequate to the complex challenge becomes increasingly complicated.

This does not have to happen intentionally or overtly, though it does, it can happen gradually, almost imperceptibly, changing the culture of the institution. The institutional processes become unnecessarily complicated and an obtuse wasting of energy from running on bureaucratic hamster wheels rather than addressing the original complex issues because the institution has become a maze of disconnected parts requiring the right map or passwords to get through it.

However, stepping back and embracing complexity provides a better chance of finding a simple answers and likely different and better than any simplistic answer provided by a complicated approach. The blog post Breaking through the complications to face the complexities and coming out whole was an endeavor to at least speak to a light at the end of a tunnel which only then beginning to be charted.

Again, not only do different arenas or sectors need to be brought together in an organic manner so that better reflects the underlying complexity of the issues being addressed but it needs to be done in a systematic manner that creates new opportunities for innovation.

A number of different strategies or approaches have been introduced in the process of building this learning platform for creating new community paradigms. Learning from these has not only provided different and therefore broader understanding but also helped to again bridge previously unconnected areas of inquiry. There is not always agreement with these different viewpoints but they serve to better frame the questions being raised. They have all been featured previously but this time it will be through more of a systems framework.

Strong Towns, led by Executive Director Charles (Chuck) Marohn, is one of the earliest and featured through three separate avenues in the right hand column of this blog. Strong Towns was first viewed as a means of bridging the ideas of Place and Economics. The blog post Strong Towns a closer look leads to a more detailed summary of what they espouse. There are disagreements, including the priority of environmental concerns or over reliance on fiscal metrics as related to community development, but they are still included because according to the Strong Towns philosophy, there are no real solutions to the fundamental problems facing our local communities, just rational responses.
Our local regulatory, planning, financing and engineering systems are designed to work in the Old Economy. If we are to see growth at the local level in a New Economy, all of these systems need to be rescaled to fit the changed reality.
This provides a basis for collaboration while at the same time leaving room for discussion as to what the most rational responses might be. The most admirable resource they provide is a Curbside Chat Book-LO.pdf that could be used for community generated grassroots effort to start asking some fundamental questions about one’s community. Strong Towns also sees the economic development of community as needing to fit within a larger system in a financially sustainable manner. Again, plenty of room for discussion as to the best answers but they are asking the right questions.

Another alternative approach to understanding our local communities and economies was considered in the blog post Seeing Economy and Community as Ecosystem Another Way of Shifting the Paradigm. Inspired by a blog post by Della Rucker, Principal of Wise Economy Workshop who wrote So how do we start building Wise Economies? Economies = Communities = Ecosystems it provides for a more organic approach that addresses the increasing complexity inherent in the growth of our communities.

First, we need to change how we think about communities, businesses, organizations and governments. We need to understand that economic vitality depends on the health of a community, and that a community is not a set of separate, unrelated systems – a business district, a school system, a park system, a street system — but an ecosystem.
This concept of an ecosystem, in which the development of the economic system cannot ignore the development of the larger community system. This was also brought out in blog post Breaking through the complications to face the complexities and coming out whole, which discussed Della’s appreciation of Jane Jacobs insights into organized complexity.
It’s an understanding of “organized complexity,” as she (Jacobs) called it – the dynamic inter-relationships of systems, of processes, of self-organization. This was not a mysterious world, but a comprehensible one – it was just a different kind of world than we had been envisioning. A city, certainly, was a different kind of problem than we had thought. And therein she identified a huge obstacle to learning and progress, and one that is largely still with us.
Again, there is a recognition of a more systems based perspective moving from a narrow focus on the amount of revenues or number of jobs to a wider focus on the overall health, economically and environmentally, of the community.

With this type of approach, instead of cities competing for businesses and tax dollars, they have at least the potential working more easily together in collaborating to create healthy cities and livable communities.

This approach even with something as apparently reasonable as creating healthy cities is, however, a challenge to both our planning systems and health approach in fundamental ways. The objective of such an effort needs to be to pioneer new interfaces between health and planning. Although such a focus is local, the impact can be global such as with the World Health Organization's (WHO) creating a template definition of what is meant by a healthy city which can be replicated. WHO also has a global healthy cities project which is not top down but provides more of a template for successful implementation.

The Healthy Cities movement promotes comprehensive and systematic policy and planning for health and emphasizes
  • the need to address inequality in health and urban poverty
  • the needs of vulnerable groups 
  • participatory governance 
  • the social, economic and environmental determinants of health. 
This is not about the health sector only. It includes health considerations in economic, regeneration and urban development efforts.
This has been featured in both wiki-pages and blog posts under the wiki-section Livable Communities and not only collaborating to create healthy cities as mentioned above but also Healthy Cities make for Livable Communities bringing this continuing inquiry full circle.

New community paradigms deals with numerous systems, regulatory, planning, financing and engineering systems, water systems, sewer systems and others. All the preceding suggest that a systems approach and more specifically that a Systems Thinking approach could serve as an important component of new community paradigms. This approach was first introduced with the inclusion of the NEW COMMUNITY PARADIGMS SYSTEMS MINDMAP by THEBRAIN.COM.

The newly added component greatly assisted in envisioning new connections and pathways. Explaining the how and why, will be done through this blog. The primary resources will be from the results of participating in an online class on Model Thinking from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor offered by Coursea. The instructor is Scott E. Page, the Leonid Hurwicz Collegiate Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics. Model Thinking relates to Systems Thinking, the tactical means to implement strategic approaches to societies challenges. The second resource will be what can be learned from interacting with the members of the LinkedIn Systems Thinking group and the extensive resources that they provide. 

Related Blog Posts

Systems Thinking as a disciplined process for Community Governance

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Community Engagement versus Engaged Community

The issue considered In the last post was that, “We need to stop sucking at community engagement.”  A fairly easy accusation to make but more should be done in diagnosing the reasons and coming up with alternatives.  First, who is the ‘we’ we are talking about?  Taking this from a new community paradigms perspective it can’t only be those working in government and especially not City Hall.  These can be used as avenues of engagement but not as the foundations for engagement. Instead we have to look more closely at the nature of communities and how they engage, as referred to in the last post, with other external or separate organizations, institutions, and other communities as well as how they engage internally between members to members or members to the larger community.  

To better understand the workings of community engagement will mean listening and learning again from the many voices participating in the LinkedIn Community Engagement Group. Stuart Graeme, who hails from Australia, was introduced on these pages in the last post. He raised the question, “Can anyone help with a definition of community engagement relating to people being involved in their local community not in terms of organisations engaging the community?to which a number of Community Engagement professionals contributed a response.  So it seems that one can learn lessons in community engagement from across both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. 

Once one starts looking closely at community engagement, it becomes easy to understand why its hard to come up with a definitive understanding because of the number of different terms used to define it with the definition of those terms often being amorphous.  

A more workable definition of the first half of the term under consideration, ‘community’ will wait for a later post. The definition of community will be more of a matter of understanding as a system so will likely be more abstract and involve systems thinking in some aspect. This means taking a few steps back to understand ‘community’ and its ‘engagement’ within an environment as a system.  Less passion and more analysis but for the purpose of better understanding where the passion needs to be directed.  The focus for this post is on the second half ‘engagement’ considered as more of a verb expressing action, state, or a relation between two things as in the act of being engaged.

What is commonly labeled community engagement usually involves some external organization or institution that is seen as being the subject responsible for the engagement.  How engagement, as a verb, is implemented depends upon the planned objective of the subject institution. The institution has its own motivation to engage the community. “City Hall will host a legally mandated meeting, on Thursday at 7 pm, on a new project to get comments from the public.” The community then becomes the passive object.  The last post referred to local governments needing buy in from residents for certain projects.  It is therefore reasonable to suspect that what is called community engagement is, as one CE professional put it, often more about governing and controlling and not really about the community.  

Community engagement can be realized in two basic ways or a combination of the two, either by the assistance of some external development services, including local government, religious or other nongovernmental organizations or instead by communities themselves through the use of self-administrative and social structures.  Currently, most energy and resources are allocated by and toward the first category with either meager support to active opposition for the second.  Under new community paradigms, resources and energy are allocated by both approaches to supporting the second path to be taken by the community itself. 

The idea of restricting “community engagement by formal organizations" conveys something one-directional.  As one CE professional pointed out, engagement should be a mutual two way process and not only a one way process. 

Another CE professional participating in the discussion proposed that instead of talking about community engagement what should be talked about is an engaged community.  One active citizen made it known, according to one story, that as far as he was concerned the community was already very engaged with each other, and that the project should really be about the government institution in question learning to engage with an already engaged community.  

Others cited lessons learned from Results Based Community Planning by the Australian Local Community Services Association through which they discovered that when the local councils (similar I suspect to city councils or planning commissions here) presented an idea as a plan, what it conveyed to the community was an excessively top down management approach.  The community preferred instead to talk about community action.  

How successful such efforts are depends upon the make up of the community as illustrated by another story involving Steve Johnson of Organ’s Portland University, who when participating in a number of community discussions of a planning matter observed that in some cases, “People just turned up and before anyone announced the process they just started working together. They grabbed markers, flip chart paper, and started talking, writing, drawing and came up with some ideas, documents concerns and aspirations, etc.”  At others, even though he made the same workshop resources available when people arrived they instead just sat down, looking awkward, waiting for someone to lead them. The lesson to be learned is that the extend to which communities can be engaged needs to take into account the extent to which the members of those communities are engaged with each other. 

Communities are in reality organic and complex rather than mechanical and complicated entities. Seeing communities as complex allows one to understand community engagement from an organic perspective by which the engagement is initiated and led by the community through a grassroots, bottom up approach.   Community engagement from an organic bottoms up perspective involves grassroots social structures participating in the improvement of their community from the identification of communal challenges to the realization, and management of projects identified to address those challenges.  Involving the community as a whole in a participatory manner becomes what defines community engagement. 

Engagement, when not coupled with community from a top down perspective, then is more likely to refer to activism, advocacy, networking, representing, connecting or other appropriately descriptive verbs.

Grassroots community engagement, however, rarely occurs spontaneously without some organizing focus or energy and that often comes from a formally constituted organization, whether internal or external. 

Community engagement then, according to one CE professional, becomes about planning the process to build both the 'Bonding' and 'Bridging' of 'Social Capital' within a  community.  One metric whether community engagement has been successful or not is the extent to which the process has helped the community to build social capital, making the community stronger and more connected.  "Social Capital" was seen though by some as being part of a technical discourse with which the majority of people are not engaged, making it a more useful term when examining community engagement from a more systems perspective.

Governmental institutions, however, often do not take kindly to the organic development of communities. The trouble is that government institutions treat community problems and community engagement as complicated issues, which they can at least in part control, as compared to a complex problem with which they have a great deal of difficulty.  

The organic based direction a community takes can be diverted by institutions attempting to fulfill what they see as their institutional mission.  Even when well intentioned, professionals whether directly involved in community engagement or more likely indirectly as part of some other function, say economic development, often lack a true understanding or appreciation of what community engagement as a means of building real community capacity is about. 

Even if one starts with the right motivations and frame of reference, it is still difficult to work with a community that is disengaged or disenfranchised or with a group that lacks sufficient social capital in the larger community.  This can arguably be widely applicable as many if not most people in any large community feel disengaged, as social capital is only generated where people are actively engaged.  The individual then rather than the organization becomes the most basic component of community engagement.

Those individuals engaged in their communities at an organizational level are often known as ‘community volunteers’, while those working in the community without the backing of any organization are likely to be known simply as ‘good neighbors’.  This goes back to some of the ideas discussed in the last post. 

Stuart Graeme examines ideas of individual community engagement by citing an article by Colin Williams, "Fostering community engagement and tackling undeclared work" which asserted that community engagement involves "spending time, engaged in unpaid activity, doing something that aims to benefit someone (individuals or groups) other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment."  

In Stuart’s view this does not necessarily have to happen through an organization but could arise more like the "good neighbor" concept.  It would be based, in my view upon the existence of what has been labeled ‘Civil Society, particularly when thinking of community paradigms as a set of community relations.  Stuart also seems to suggest that these 'good neighbors' could be the ones to start in engaging with the community to build the connectedness comprising the 'Bonding' and 'Bridging' of of 'Social Capital.'  

They are also the ones who initiate the creation of new community paradigms by ‘Building Better Blocks’ or encouraging direct deliberative democracy in their communities.  The idea of volunteering becomes not only a matter of community engagement, it is also a matter of community building especially in a period of often unavoidable austerity as we find ourselves.  It can have an economic impact as well as a social or political impact on a community as was first raised by this endeavor under  A Beginning: Working to create Liveable Cities through Liveanomics and "Liveanomics" EIU Livable Cities Studies wiki page.

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