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, October 30, 2013

Paradigms Lost - Olmsted Brothers and the 1930 L.A. Plan

Up to this point, the endeavor to discover new knowledge and resources with which to create new community paradigms has taken place online. On November 10, 2013, starting at 1:00 p.m., I will be listening to an unconventional conversation regarding “A Place for Us, Reimagining and Reclaiming” with a distinguished (and live) panel of experts at the Rancho Los Alamitos in Long Beach, CA. 

The reimagining of place, whether as community place or social and economic engine, has been occurring since the inception of this effort by exploring for myself previously little or unknown bodies of knowledge such as Placemaking. It is the reclaiming or the discovery that there is something to reclaim from Los Angeles history that is new. 

The telling story of the preeminent landscape design firm Olmsted Brothers, who co-authored the groundbreaking 1930 “Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches,” plan, and their attempt, “to enhance Los Angeles County’s natural beauty and to also, protect its cultural assets and fragile ecologies, by linking the mountains to the beaches through scenic parkways and a necklace of open space across the region.”, and how it was thwarted will be the centerpiece of this unconventional conversation.  

The story of the Olmsted Brothers and the 1930 L.A. Plan were not known to me or I suspect to many others outside the brothers' and related arenas of expertise.  Christopher Hawthorne, architect critic for the Los Angeles Times, started in 2011 writing Reading L.A., which featured 27 nonfiction books about Los Angeles’ past and future built environment. One of those books was “Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region” edited by historians Greg Hise and William Deverell, the later who is one of the participants at the upcoming unconventional conversation.  In his article, Reading L.A.: The Olmsted Brothers plan and what might have been, Hawthorne provides a useful summary of the Olmsted Brothers’ vision unrealized.

Los Angeles has then attempted paradigm changes before our time during L.A. b.c., ‘before congestion’. Can’t say, ‘before cars’ because, according to Hawthorne’s article, even in 1927 it was noted that Los Angeles “has a far wider and thinner spread of population than any other metropolis, and a far greater use of automobiles.” The die had already been cast then. The use of the word paradigm can be defended because the landscape of Los Angeles would have been far different if the Olmsted plan had been followed and the reality that we took another path has had a defining affect upon us. 

This was one of the points were we stopped, as Chuck L. Marohn, Executive Director of Strong Towns has explained before, following the wisdom of our past and began an immense Growth Ponzi Scheme as a runaway experiment.  Is it possible to underestimate the difference that this has made between then and now?  Today, placemaking can be an act of rebellion and one wonders what the reaction of the Olmsted Brothers would have been if someone asked them to build a ‘livable community’ as if there were any other kind that one takes responsibility for designing. 

Christopher Hawthorne informs us, with knowledge undoubtedly garnered from William Deverell’s book, that: 

“What the Olmsted and Bartholomew firms ultimately produced for the Citizens’ Committee was a report –- “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region” -- of astonishing sophistication and farsightedness. Not only did the plan chart the ways in which the region was lacking in open space, it laid out a remarkably detailed plan for creating new parks, parkways and untouchable "reservations." It was careful to tailor the plan to match the singular character of the region, which it noted “has a far wider and thinner spread of population than any other metropolis, and a far greater use of automobiles.” It also proposed mechanisms for getting its various ideas approved and paid for.”

So why did it fail to be realized? According to Hawthorne’s article, “This fate,” the editors note, “was not due to some intrinsic flaw in the plan, nor was it due to a lack of public will, and it certainly was not happenstance. No, what happened in this case was more deliberate, more planned. The Chamber of Commerce and its allies effectively limited circulation of the report and discouraged public discourse.” This suppression succeeded so well that “it garnered almost no public attention. The response, in truth, was a resounding silence.” Okay, somethings do not change. 

What was the motivation of those who had originally given birth to the idea? Again, according to Hawthorne’s article, “It’s not entirely clear. In the end, Deverell and Hise conclude, the chamber’s leaders likely began to worry that the report was a more powerful, persuasive and explosive document than they’d bargained for, and that it might turn into something they wouldn’t be able to control, politically or otherwise.” Does this suggest that a bold and comprehensive vision could inspire the larger community to work together for their own common good?

There is still though a legacy that can be taken from the report according to its two editors, Hise and Deverell.  “It is first of all “a textbook example of the distance that separates a plan, a vision of the future, from its realization.” Second is, “how it reveals the form and meaning, the very definition, of urban space as the product of an ongoing contest.”

I suspect that there was a great deal of aggregated innovation through the Olmsted creative history in the 1930 Plan.  There was not, however, any disruptive force or organizing principle that could change the inertia of the then existing system of economic and political power. 

We are living with the results today. 

All of these cities -– Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle –- now sprawl all over those once-fabulously beautiful settings. Nature has been pushed to the horizon. Each city has serious traffic congestion, terrible air pollution, a great deficit of parks and open space, and swollen populations. They’re all deficient in profound ways, because they happened so fast. People thought, ‘Well, we’ll do that next year.’ They never did.”

Today, things are moving faster and have become so exceedingly complex that we have to describe the challenges facing our communities as ‘wicked’. 

During the upcoming unconventional conversation on “A Place for Us, Reimagining and Reclaiming”, I am going to be listening for voices from the past.  The Olmsted Brothers again warning, ‘This is going to happen, and this is your moment to do something about it or you’ll miss your chance.’ This time, I hope we pay more attention. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Problem with the Future is Getting There and It will need Disruptive Innovation

As was anticipated, I have risked placing my self into a conceptual corner in an effort to apply Professor Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation to the public sector by means of community governance. The specific reference to the theory is necessary as an operational term synthesizing both the idea of disruptive and of innovation going beyond the mere addition of both ideas together. The objective is to stay true to the theory’s principles while arguing for its viability as a strategy for meaningful change. 

First, there is the fully admitted reality that even if the concept of disruptive innovation within the public sector is viable, in any aspect, that achieving it will not only be difficult but actual occurrences are likely to be few. What this post will attempt is to provide some insight why the perceived need for disruptive innovation in the public sector and how the realization for the need was arrived at. 

There has also been some push back or questioning of the notion that certain ideas or programs in the public sector arena, whether developed within the institutional system or outside it, are not disruptive. One example being Code for America

Code for America can be considered a disruptive element or perhaps it would be better to term it a disrupting element. It could potentially be considered a so-called disruptive technology for the implementation of an actual disruptive innovation, but it cannot be considered a disruptive innovation in its own right as defined by Christensen’s theory. 

The difference is that the type of disruption made possible by Code for America, through what has been referred to as sustaining innovations in recent past posts, can be thought of as at most rebellions to which current often entrenched local governments sometimes acquiesce. If not, the rebellion moves on to a more favorable target. These rebellions, regardless of how often they occur, do not seem able to coalesce into the type of revolution needed to truly bring us into a twenty-first century economy. Such a revolution needs to be transformative, as non-destructive as possible, at a level of social evolution. The current crop of disrupting applications through sustaining innovations will not reach the required tipping point by waiting for enough local government institutions to become self-enlightened enough to create the change themselves or in D.I. terms self-disrupt or for community advocates to put together the necessary components to overcome entrenched city halls. 

Disruptive Innovation is put forward as a means of revolution through redefining the community relationship of power to scarcity and abundance and the process by which change in the system is implemented. 

Disruptive innovation is a potential organizing principle that could energize a number of different approaches, including among others, radical community engagement, placemaking, community ecology, economic gardening, participatory budgeting, design thinking, systems thinking, and even adaptive complexity systems in redefining our communities to reach a critical mass needed for transformational change. Yet, as with many other innovative approaches to civic institutions, alone they remain not capable of creating the necessary momentum. They do have the potential though and have provided fuel to the creation of a strategy incorporating disruptive innovation as has the many interactions with professionals in a variety of different fields. 

Among these are those with Della Rucker of Wise Economy, who has been featured in this blog a number of times, in particular Seeing Economy and Community as Ecosystem Another Way of Shifting the Paradigm, and Looking for Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations then Make sure They are Disruptive. She has been an important element in developing new ideas within this blog.

Back in May of this year, I had a conversation on Twitter with @DellaRucker, starting with my re-sharing of her observation regarding people’s willingness to participate in a community’s positive disruption and the resulting pushback from city hall through a City Crackdown on Tactical Urbanism. Tactical urbanism can be seen as a potentially disrupting combination of community governance with placemaking. Potential because some cities quickly quash such efforts but others, most notably New York, have now taken the concept from tactical to strategic.

One line of internal inquiry at the time was how to move from a tactical perspective of disruption, using tactical urbanism as an example, to a more strategic approach to disruption utilizing Professor Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. At that point, the concept which has been introduced more formally over the last three posts was still in the preliminary stages, still being formed and molded for the most part in forums directly dealing with disruptive innovation in the private free market economy. Such an approach when applied to the public sector would, however, be a part of what Della has termed an ecosystem or what I see as a systems based platform for a paradigm shift of both community and economy.

The next day, Della shared with me, Building and Connecting Communities for the Future in the Futurist magazine of the World Future Society, via another thinker on Twitter (a seemingly paradoxical idea for some) @SandyMaxey. For some reason though, despite trying to put not too negative of a spin on it, I had issues with the article. It has taken me this long to both come to grips with and to be able to state why, while at the same time putting forth a possible alternative, disruptive innovation.

The Futurist article asserts:

So economic developers will now need to expand their focus beyond creating jobs to building better places in which to live, work, play, and run a business. And it means developing their citizens into a Future Forward Workforce—i.e., agile workers who can take advantage of opportunities anywhere in the world without abandoning their communities, and who can move in and out of the three types of economies at will. 

Undoubtedly, there is a need for change and those suggested directions are possible and viable, but there is no stated engine or source of momentum provided in the article for the transition to take place.

There is absolutely no argument with the proposition that the global economy, whether considered in totality or as an aggregate of local, regional and metropolitan economies of which it is comprised, has changed and that the traditional approach to economic development, and I would add community governance, no longer works for optimal benefit.

Also agree with the stages of economic transition from Industrial Age, to Knowledge Economy to Creative Molecular Economy and though some of their claims it could be argued are overstated, especially manufacturing, I don't have any disagreement with their elements defining a Creative Molecular Economy.

My primary disagreement is with the unstated or unexamined assumption that we can or will be able to passively transition from a materialistic economy into a transformational society, that this will be a matter of inevitable evolution rather than purposeful decisions. Disruptive innovation, admittedly, does not provide paint by numbers steps to implementation but it does provide an organizing principle and momentum.

The article does provide a possible framework for future deliberative democracy through a 'Mobile Networked Governance for the Creative Molecular Economy,' which could be an avenue through which community building ideas, sourced through the community, are nourished and brought to fruition but the article, at least implicitly, puts the community into a passive role.

Economic development professionals should not presume to develop their citizens into a “Future Forward Workforce” as if they were a passive commodity. Any redefinition of economic development through community building will have to involve the community, not as passive recipients but as active creators.

This is no longer a matter of economic development but a larger matter of community development in the most expansive sense of the term. This requires new systems or platforms for systems needing to be created but those now in power benefitting from existing system are not incentivized to change and those with the potential incentive don't have the power.

A call for reinventing economic development as a profession rings hollow if those called on to make the change have neither the controlling power over the existing system, this would be the often entrenched politicians, nor any real means of empowering those for whom and by whom the change should be made. Visionary leaders of this transition seem to arise out of the ether but in reality the current system will continue to regenerate itself and work to stop those that would change it unless enough momentum can be created to overcome this. That momentum cannot come from the economic development profession alone. It will require transformation of and by all social components, economic development, community development and all other sectors of the public sector and our means of community governance incorporating policy and politics.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Why Disruptive Innovation in the Public Sector Will Not be Easy.

The concept of applying disruptive innovation within the public sector was put forward in the last two posts. There isn't any desire to retreat from this proposition but it does seem necessary to make clear that this will by no means be easy. Disruptive Innovation should not be seen as a slam dunk generator for solutions to the wicked problems facing the public sector and those communities it endeavors to support. (Yes, the public sector in general does try to help the communities with whom they work.) It may, however, be a viable catalyst for bringing about paradigm level changes needed to meet our current wicked challenges by transforming our current systems of community governance and management. The focus will be mainly on local city government, others may focus on other components of government at other levels.

In the previous post a set of premises were established before inquiring about disruptive innovation. I should have added a premise that we are speaking of the United States. How and if these concepts could be implemented elsewhere in the world will depend on local characteristics. I believe that in many cases, perhaps with some modification, that they could but will leave that to others.

First, in no example of private market disruptive innovation was disruption of the incumbent business, purely for the sake of disruption, the primary motivation. It was to capture market share to increase revenue and profits. Of course, the disruption of the incumbent is a logical outcome but there is an incentive of value creation driving the disruptor. Endeavors to create new community paradigms, particularly through disruptive innovation, must create net added value for the community, not merely move it around or block it. Some form of incentive needs to be created to get people to change before the institutions which they make up or live under can be made to change. This will be a difficult hurdle to get over.

Second, it must be understood that true disruptive innovation happens very seldom in the private economy so there will not soon be numerous disruptive innovations in the public sector occurring. Most claims of successful implementation of disruptive innovation within the private market, and perhaps more so in the public sector, are merely overblown promotional claims of at best sustaining innovations. It may be some time before a fully realized disruptive innovation by a community of an entrenched local government institution is accomplished, if ever. The pursuit is still worthwhile though because it has the potential of developing innovative means of far greater expansion of governance directly by the community and enhancement of community wealth.

In discussing the hurdles to implementing disruptive innovation within the public sector, two more premises need to be established. One, perhaps more of a reiteration, is that there is a democratic deficit within our local community government institutions. This issue has been raised before, at least indirectly, in posts such as Entrenched City Halls Defined then Disrupted and others. Two, there will be an innovative transformation of such government institutions and their role in community governance in the future. The second premise is not as hopeful as it might seem because it will depend upon the type of innovation path we decide to follow.

It is important to understand that disruptive innovation is not an event. It is a set of factors defining an economic evolution within a private, free enterprise based economic environment. It was within this environment that the concept of disruptive innovation was discerned, studied, understood to the point of being made predictable so the decisions could potentially be made to help ensure future successes, by Professor Christensen of Harvard University. The intention is to attempt to apply these principles to the public sector.

In his New York Times piece, “A Capitalist's Dilemma, Whoever Wins on Tuesday" from November 3, 2012, Christensen arguably changed his perspective on disruptive innovations and began to use the term “empowering” innovations. Whether this is a change may be more of a matter of semantics or not, I am embracing the updated definition. There are, however, two other modes of innovation which were cited by Christensen, “sustaining” innovations and “efficiency” innovations.

“Sustaining” innovations, Christensen explains, “replace old products with new models.” While the new model Toyota Prius hybrid replaces the older product Camry, the customer likely does not buy both yet still stays loyal to Toyota. There is, though, a zero-sum aspect to sustaining innovations. Many innovations within the public sector today, such as those being put forward by organizations like Code for America, are sustaining innovations which are of great benefit but will not, as I will assert to greater lengths in future posts, be able to fundamentally change the existing systems. At least not without some catalyst for creating a greater momentum for change. These sustaining innovations could be stepping stones or a base for future disruptive or empowering innovations. Coalescing these practices into a disruptive innovation framework through collaboration of relevant stakeholders will not be an easy task.

“Efficiency” innovations, according to Christensen, reduce the cost of making and distributing existing products and services. Many of the institutional innovations within the public sector are of this type. In a time of cities struggling through budget deficits and in some cases going bankrupt, burdened by unfunded pensions and inadequately funded infrastructure this approach can be very enticing.

Some believe that city government should mimic business in structure and purpose so that our democratic institutions of community are run as profit or revenue motivated enterprises rather than laboratories of community collaboration. The argument to made on these pages is that such an approach will invariably lead to a greater democratic deficit. The problem is that if a way cannot be found to transform the sustaining innovations into empowering innovations, communities may default to this more efficient approach so that if they don’t get the actual community related job-to-be-done from city government that they want, that at least what they have acquiesced to is supposedly comparatively inexpensive.

If those within the walls of city hall the and the larger community are in basic agreement with this, then there may be little to no opportunity for disruptive innovation. Even more so, if the larger community is content with the managerial efforts of city hall and does not wish to involve itself to any great extent because it has the ability to address issues of importance through other avenues besides local government institutions. In these cases, the city hall in question serves as the incumbent within an unopposed market and has little worry from competition.

The standard approach to a change in city government is to offer supposed alternatives to the constituents within an electoral framework and then work with the elected representatives through the governmental processes such as planning commission meetings or city council hearings. This blog has asserted in the past that there is a difference between city government and community governance, again in Entrenched City Halls Defined then Disrupted and elsewhere, arguing that the first does not necessarily provide the best outcomes for the second.

The problem is that entrenched systems of government by politically powered institutions can create over time a culture that stymies broader democratic participation. This culture can become entrenched so firmly into the fabric of the community that even if the potential for disruption or change exists, the leverage to make it happen may not be enough.

This could though be a matter of appearances. Overcoming this illusion of supposed democratic processes masking an absence of actual meaningful influence, if and when it exists, is another objective of this effort. It may be easier though to discern this as individuals but far harder as a community as a whole and even harder to change it.

Finally, there may be a diminished sense of community by those living within the geographical boundaries of the community governed by the entrenched bureaucratic institution occupying city hall. Any larger sense of community having been hampered by city hall and replaced by a narrower network of special interests which supports and is supported by city hall. Within the walls of city hall, it may appear that the democratic apparatus is working but in truth is it merely the remnants of those being benefited by the current entrenched system while the majority of the community again settles for whatever is made available.

The development of this particular theory of disruptive innovation within the public sector is a long term strategy starting first with disrupting people’s thinking as to how they relate to politically based power structures that are supposed to represent the will of their community but too often end up serving narrow self interests and those of a limited pool of political supporters. Mere disruption of a political process is not all that hard. Disruption coupled with innovation resulting in meaningful change is impossible though if nobody first believes such disruption is even feasible. By providing an organizing principle that encompasses both disruption and innovation, all instances of either can be seen as potential stepping stones to actual disruptive innovation if such an overarching principle can be pursued.

By understanding how an ostensibly unassailable institutional system can be breeched using that system’s own structure and incentives against it gives hope that people can find innovative means of collaboration to transform a scarcity of community wealth into an abundance for the benefit of the entire community. The still to be answered question is how?

Past Posts