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.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Failed Olmsted 1930 LA Plan points to Complex Challenges for Today and Opportunities for Disruption Tomorrow

In the last post written on attending ‘A Place for Us: Re-imagining and Reclaiming’,' lessons learned from the past regarding the process behind the failed 1930 Los Angeles Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches Plan of the Olmsted Brothers, were discussed. This post will attempt to bring some of those lessons up to the present by connecting concepts previously considered on these pages with the concrete examples provided by history.

One lesson in particular is that even if there are surface similarities between then and now, this does not mean that the underlying premises and perspectives, or agendas are the same.  We sometimes pick the lessons from history or criticize mistakes of the past to fit our own current agendas. There are some aspects of popular initiated community building and development though that do seem to stay the same. Los Angeles in 1930 had its Hollywood stars has it has today and businessmen on the Chamber of Commerce could be swayed as they can today. Los Angeles had cars back then, more cars than most cities, and was concerned about water.  However, what they saw and what we see as the fundamental challenges and the visionary goals are very different.  This is not to point out that they were wrong but that they had different system wide challenges and came up with a different set of solutions based on the knowledge and resources that they had.  Although the perspectives and approaches may change, Los Angeles, as a community defined by geography, history and natural resources, is still continually trying to redefine, even create itself anew. 

Besides looking at the past, the panel for the ‘A Place for Us: Re-imagining and Reclaiming’ discussion also provided more abstract but still useful perspectives on the continual regeneration of cities over time. Cities overall, William Deverell pointed out, provide for the most efficient utilization of resources on a per capita basis and succeed far better as social engines compared to other versions of built community. Two newly learned and important metrics in the organizing of humans within a constrained geography were urban metabolism and friction of distance. A closer look at urban metabolism is provided by this slide presentation by Stephanie Pincetl and Paul Bunje of UCLA.   

While these are not the type of numbers that would be included in a city’s end of year report, they do help in the configuration of placemaking on a broader scale to optimize community ecology.  Community ecology is chosen as a more appropriate term, rather than the word environment, because it can be associated with a greater biological orientation to the concept of community and the process of relating to the environment. Placemaking, according to the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago, “is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.” 

This effort, in its initial stages, saw placemaking as dealing with the built environment but from an interactive social perspective by which the built environment became the canvas upon which the creativity of the community was manifested, and was in turn also transformed by that creativity to the point at which the canvas became the art

The use of these terms serves to define the system of community as one of adaptive complexity. Under a complex adaptive system we can assume that there are elements making up the neighborhoods that in turn make up the city that is part of the region.  It is at the level of elements that design thinking has its focus, that disruptive innovation seeks the job-to-be-done and that, as the moderator Claudia Jurmain challenged the panel, supports Paola Antonelli’s assertion that design allows for the negotiation of change.

We, as a rule, though create artificial systems of complicated mechanistic algorithms imposed by top down management in an attempt to control the complex systems of nature or those arising through our interactions with nature or which then subsequently result.  The business world is already coming to the realization that the complex challenges of the twenty-first century cannot be addressed through twentieth century means of imposing solutions.  The public sector is though, in many cases, falling behind. 

The 1930 Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches Plan was based on the aspirations of the community of Los Angeles or at least that part of the community that had aspirations. This is different from the norm according to Tom Gilmore of Gilmore & Associates, who during the panel discussion asserted that most substantial forms of community transformation were based on some form of crisis.  This is aspiration that emerged through what is considered by this blog as a complex system of community.  Certain creative elements or a vanguard within the community saw a need to make the future more coherent. The actual creation of the 1930 Plan though was done through what can be imagined as being the complicated application of algorithms gathered and developed by the Olmsted Brothers over their impressive career.  They also incorporated local expertise of the territory and fauna but they did not seek general public input maintaining strong top down control over the process. 

The Olmsted's were also savvy enough to know though that the politics of the Plan had to be addressed before hand.  The community likely thought that it had but did not realize how, what this blog terms as ‘entrenched‘, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce or its inner sanctum was, allowing it to be the bottleneck that killed the efforts of the vanguard of the larger community.  

Entrenched power should be operationally defined as it is arguably the biggest obstacle to optimizing the system. The term entrenchedfor New Community Paradigms, usually found as entrenchedcity halls, refers to political institutions, usually local, that through an evolution of community culture have created subsystems of political and economic power that become entrenched regardless of any form of democratic intervention.  Surface changes of exchanging one clique of politicians for another might occur but there is no longer any real broad based democratic participation in the mode of the top tiers of Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation.  The label entrenchedwas used to make such entities analogous to incumbent business entities that through their own successes had become myopic in their understanding of their own market and failed to see or appreciate the impact of competitors being empowered through disruptive innovation. Entrenched cities are not similarly successful, often quite the opposite, but they are myopic and they restrict or squander resources to hold on to power and often a past in which they had greater status.  New Community Paradigms is exploring whether disruptive innovation can, in some form, be applied to the public sector. 

Entrenched city halls and their like have been a target for this effort from its start.  It has also been said before that not all city halls are entrenched. That, however, is not enough. What should also be made clear is that if a city is not entrenched then it may likely be ‘adaptive,' as in existing as a manifestation of a complex adaptive system.  How adaptive would still be a question, adaptive enough to maintain the system until the environment changed too drastically or adaptive enough to recreate the system?  Furthermore, no community is wholly at any one particular stage.

The larger community or system had developed what was likely a complex resolution to meet a community need but without getting formal, explicit democratic agreement from the majority of the community.  It found a seemingly effective means of addressing that challenge which would have been likely adopted by the larger community if the opportunity had arisen. This system or community, however, had no means of addressing the entrenched power of the few members of the LA Chamber board once they turned on the Plan.  Another 'if' question for the future is whether getting formal and explicit democratic approval for the Plan from the larger community before and during its creation would have also derailed implementation of the Plan, not up or down approval but the crafting of the plan to the same level of widely accepted excellence. 

Another new area of exploration for this blog has been systems thinking. Communities are systems and it becomes increasingly difficult to meet new challenges facing these community systems. This is not The Systemof secret, behind closed doors political power and chicanery, but the larger, livingcomplex social system which encompasses civil society and economics extending from the local to the global.  This system endeavors to create components of itself through self organization and agent intervention that ideally functions to meet the ‘metabolic’ needs of the community effectively, efficiently and sustainably while meeting a desire for greater democratization by its residents while trying to get past the bottlenecks often created by that other the systemof entrenched political and economic power.  These three components of the system can move in and out of conflict, usually because of different agent agendas, making the system potentially chaotic. 

A conflict or disfunction between entrenched power and greater community democratization or even between entrenched power with a truly well functioning system could be understood and appreciated.  A potential conflict between a well functioning system and community democratization might not be so obvious and its resolution not so apparent. Adding an entrenched entity to this last configuration only makes it, well more complex. However, even if entrenched power is successfully addressed, there is still a potential (though expectably resolvable) conflict between creating a well functioning system that addresses wicked challenges and full community democratization that could move the system back to control by entrenched powers. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Reimagining and Reclaiming a Place for Us: Olmsted 1930 LA Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches Plan, Lessons from the Past

This last Sunday afternoon was spent in attendance at the Rancho Los Alamitos, Long Beach, CA, to listen to presentations and a panel on the 1930 Los Angeles “Playgrounds, Parks and Beaches” Plan as a basis for a discussion of “A Place for Us: Reimagining and Reclaiming”, which was written about in advance of the event by this blog a couple of posts ago

From a media perspective, Frances Anderton, radio host of DnA: Design and Architecture on KCRW and, and Jon Christensen, an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and the Department of History, as well as nationally published freelance environmental journalist.  

From the brick and mortar development perspective, Alan Pullman, AIA, founder of Studio One Eleven, a division of the international firm Perkowitz+Ruth Architects, who also serves on the Urban Land Institute’s Inner City Council, and Tom Gilmore of Gilmore Associates, who began in 1998 to acquire and rehabilitate underutilized historic properties in the Historic Core of downtown Los Angeles. Noted by the event’s promotional material as a risk-taker and animating force behind Los Angeles adaptive reuse development, his revitalization of the Old Bank District has served as a model for other developers.  

The moderators were Claudia Jurmain, Director of Special Projects and Publications and founder of Conversations in Place at Rancho Los Alamitos and D.J. Waldie, historian, cultural commentator and author of Holy Land — A Suburban Memoir, who also served as a presenter and panel member.

Saying who presented the ideas is important because there weren’t any Powerpoint presentations and the exchange of ideas was plentiful and very fluid.  As usual, this was a new venture with little previous knowledge, even more so relative to the deep knowledge that the panelists brought to the discussion. The issues that were dealt with, whether from the past or today were also more concrete than some of the issues that have been dealt with recently by this blog.  There was both new knowledge acquired and the checking of previous ‘knowledge’ wrongly acquired providing enough to create two posts, one looking to lessons for the future and one, this one, looking to lessons taken from the past. 

The presentation and panel discussion provided more substance to the the 1930 LA Playgrounds, Parks, and Beaches Plan story. The Olmsted Brothers were asked a number of times before they agreed to create the Plan and they warned the good people of Los Angeles Olmsted that it was essential that the political work needed to be done before hand to avoid, what W. Deverell termed, a naive environmental idealism versus politics.  

The actual process of bringing the 1930 LA Plan to realization was not that different from today.  The Hollywood big star of the day, Mary Pickford, wooed the LA Chamber of Commerce resulting in a large number of paid prescriptions from private wealth to fund what was to be conceptually similar to the Emerald Necklace of Boston.  The Olmsted Plan focused around Elysian Park combining landscape planning with traffic planning with the underlying premise that nature or the environment was endless. That myth is now gone. 

The Olmsted Brothers had local input into the creation of the Plan but from local experts familiar with the fauna and territory, not so much from the public it would seem. The Plan was to be paid for by bonded debt and governed by a newly created government entity.

The best intentioned outcome of the Plan was that the LA Chamber was to accept the report and then send out thousands of copies but instead they sent out only 150 copies. The inner Board killed the project creating a power shift by a small group.  Demonstrating as a past example of what has been termed entrenched power by this blog, one LA Chamber member was quoted as having said, “Los Angeles has enough parks.” 

It may have been the realization that the newly proposed government institution would seriously diminish the influence of the LA Chamber’s inner circle of power that was the motivation to kill the Plan. In the tradition of Greek tragedy, that happened anyway with the coming of the Great Depression, making the squandering of a potential resource all the more ironic. S. Pincetl of UCLA spoke of ‘foiled desire’. 

This brings us to two erroneous assumptions that were made the previous Paradigms Lost - Olmsted Brothers and the 1930 L.A. Plan post.  First that the Olmsted Brothers foresaw the problems that would arise from automobiles because they recognized at the time that Los Angeles “has a far wider and thinner spread of population than any other metropolis, and a far greater use of automobiles.” W. Deverell explained that the Olmsted Brothers had a far different perspective of the automobile and its relationship to nature to what we have today. 

They envisioned what has become the rush hour packed freeway system as a series of parkways to which one could escape.  The second assumption, arising from the first, was seeing the past as a far too idyllic reality.  It was pointed out that in the early part of the twentieth century cities, particularly large cities, were still seen as being insalubrious. The automobile, rather than being the source of greenhouse gases was seen in the early twentieth century as a means of escaping the infectious diseases lurking in the cities.  Many of the urban issues we face today would arise a few decades later when the federal highway system would be created and expanded by Eisenhower, starting the Growth Ponzi Scheme that Strong Towns rails against today. 

The negative effects of past acts of either omission or commission cannot be ignored but we need to be careful with putting ourselves or our favorite aspects of the past into too favorable of a light. Cities have faced various system challenges over the years and have come up with a variety of solutions. However, the vast majority of man-made solutions created have been based on mechanistic, usually top down, complicated management structures as opposed to more complex oriented systems, and all at some point in time begin to fail if for no other reason than changes in the environment (total environment not just natural). This includes any that we make today; trouble is that they will likely fail faster. 

S. Pincetl pointed out that the older cities of Europe were built by beasts of burden rather than by machines powered by fossil fuels as were the American cities of the Twentieth century.  Early ages were not only in a different relationship with nature, they also saw their cities as serving different functions from today.  While we work to develop sustainable cities, they sought to built sanitary cities which had an essential function of evacuating waste even if that meant using waterways to do so. 

Water was also seen in a very different light in the earlier history of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles River was once a principal source of water. The Olmsted Brothers seem to have basically ignored it or, as some asserted during the panel discussion, realized that it wasn’t much of a river.  LA River would later though become a source of flooding in 1938 providing the rationale for the building of the Los Angeles Flood Control System.  At the same time Los Angeles was looking for new sources of water to meet growing demands.  The city has celebrated the 100 Anniversary of Los Angeles Aqueduct. Today, our perspective on water has changed and our primary concerns are scarcity and pollution. 

The event at Rancho Los Alamitos began to come to a close when the opportunity to ask one question from the audience was offered.  I was chosen, and though I had at least a dozen, asked a what if question which has no real answer but can still provide a good deal of insight.  What if questions provide a hindsight perspective of what went wrong.  This can be useful when trying something similar and applying it to an unknown future. 

What would have happened if the inner board of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce had not stopped the distribution of the Plan?  W. Deverell believed that because of the paid prescriptions and public support of notables such as Mary Pickford that the Plan had a good chance of being implemented. So one lesson that could be taken is to find ways to break up instances of entrenched power that serve as bottlenecks to beneficial change within the overall system in which we live.  That, however, is a longer term or at least more difficult endeavor.  Leaving the question for a future post, what other lessons can we take from this particular piece of Los Angeles history to use in creating our future. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Code for America is NOT the Wimpy Geek for Disruptive Innovation of Communities

Two posts ago, this blog was still trying to communicate the concept of applying disruptive innovation, as developed by Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard University, to the public sector and civic arena.  This is not only difficult but also raises the risk of conveying the wrong impression.  

One wrong impression that may have been made is that Code for America is seen as being ineffectual based on the assertion that it is not a disruptive innovation, at least not as defined by Professor Christensen’s operational use of the term.  I now think that I was being unfair, not wrong, just somewhat unfair.  Code for America is definitely not ineffectual, they obviously do a great deal of good, and what is more important, the technology offered by Code for America may very likely be an essential component in bringing about disruptive innovation within the civic arena. 

It could be argued that what Code for America brought to the community advocacy table was a, 'there's an app for that' set of solutions. Before this time, Code for America provided some of the tools but not the necessary craftsmanship for meaningful change. Innovation is not merely a matter of having new tools, it is also having new ways of using those tools and creating something entirely new with those tools.

Code for America is networked across the USA but it is grounded in local communities, often though through city councils and city management. This is part of what makes it usually a sustaining innovation because its implementation is so often through a system that works to maintain its own existence. If disruptive innovation is then desired, it will need to be implemented, at least in part and sometimes initially, from outside of city hall.

It is similar to the relationship between disruptive technology and disruptive innovation, there can't be meaningful change without having some underlying philosophy, some set of governing principles or programatic guidelines whether created by, from within or imposed from outside the system. Disruptive innovation, within the private market, does not require or is it even possible to forcibly implement so it cannot be imposed only facilitated.  There is, what I will call system momentum (creating a perfect storm), when the necessary inherent factors arise as a result of a relevant innovation to make a market, subject to proper management, potentially disruptable. So-called disruptive technology is not enough.  A question being asked here is whether this process of disruptive innovation can be replicated with the public sector and in the civic arena.

My evolving perspective on Code for America is that they are developing a set of principles upon which to organize and manage change beyond the technical gadgets. This perspective came about because of two books, the first, from some time past, Gardens of Democracy, was created outside of Code for America and the second, more recent, Beyond Transparency, from within. This post will consider the first.

Part of the problem is that although Code for America has been followed for a while, it has been given little direct exposure on the pages of this blog.  The New Community Paradigms wiki though has included both a Code for America wiki page, as well as one dedicated to the book, Gardens of Democracy by Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu for some time. The reason was that although many of the ideas in the book were appealing, it was decided to let the blog work through the relevant issues independently.

The Gardens of Democracy wiki page features a link to a video of authors Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu proposing that we need to fundamentally change our conception of citizenship and democracy because society has so fundamentally changed. 

Gardens of Democracy challenges the current approach to governance by creating a new metaphor that sees the world as a garden needing constant attention, discretion, and periodic weeding rather than as machinery needing to be constantly tweaked to be perfected but that never can be.  Evoking metaphor, as a means of initiating paradigm level change are of foundational importance in the continuing creation of our communities.  We use symbols and stories to define ourselves and how we relate to each other as community.  By changing the metaphor we begin to change the nature of the conversation. 

We should stop using mechanistic metaphors, such as "efficient markets" especially in defining our local economy, and instead use an alternative metaphor by which the economy is viewed as an organic ecosystem so that it can be understood to prosper best from the middle out not from the top down. We should also redefine the conversation of big government versus small government, which according to Eric Liu misses the point, and instead make it a conversation about the what and the how of government. Government should be big on the what and small on the how. Government should strive to set great goals and invest resources making them available at scale but the innovation to achieve those goals should come from the bottom up in networked ways.  

The world, according to Gardens of Democracy, has now become more complex and networked and the management of these challenges is no longer a matter of simple or of layered, add-on solutions.  The economic, environmental, and social systems which we are dealing are often nonlinear and frequently in states of non-equilibrium. Another change in the use of metaphors and language is that systems should stop being described as either efficient or inefficient but rather effective or ineffective. We are, according to the Garden authors, interdependent, cooperation is a major driver of prosperity and we are emotional approximators. Our systems are impacted positively or negatively by contagion. Therefore we not only need avenues for change, we also need to understand the momentum for that change.

For New Community Paradigms this means that, the "machine" metaphor still being used by entrenched political institutions must be transformed into a community governance model built on the metaphor of a garden of democracy.  Democratic governance would be done better through a garden of direct deliberative democratic governance by community rather than by ‘the machine’ of institutional government.  The Gardens metaphor offers a more meta approach to this question that could serve as an umbrella to a host of separate strategies focused on a variety of different challenges. 

Viewing the world in this new way can help redefine our approach to politics. The mechanistic model of citizenship "atomizes" individuals according to Eric Liu. Through the use of metaphor to convey the need to redefine the notion of community and self-interest, Gardens of Democracy helps redefine our means of community governance. Human nature stays the same, but what can be changed is human understanding, our relationship between ourselves, ideas and the world moving from a fatalistic to a mechanistic to a hopefully organic perspective.

Under a Gardens of Democracy model, individuals are networked and citizenship can be redefined accordingly, making possible a true enhancement of self-interest through community based mutual interest as understood by Tocqueville. In understanding this new reality, you realize that you are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic. We need to be far more than simple spectators to the political process, more than simple participants in the existing system but co-creators in redefining that system. We need to be more than customers and consumers of a system of community management and become co-creators of a system of community governance.

This can be seen as a disruption of the system but it is also a disruption of our own thinking.  The question is how to bring this about within others and one answer is to demonstrate to each individual how a change of innovation could be made to address a particular community related job-to-be-done. Innovation, particularly disruptive innovation, is focused on the specific needs. or in D.I. terms, jobs-to-be-done of particular individuals and all the more so when addressed through design thinking.

Code for America and particularly Gardens of Democracy provides a potential avenue, in my view, for changing three different relationships, dealt with previously, defining our communities. 

First, changing the relationship of individual community members to the community-as-a-whole and civil society. (see Civil society as a platform for new community paradigms and Community paradigms as a set of community relations). Communal networked connections can address separation in time and space to a far greater degree today.

Second, changing the relationship of the individual community members, making up the community-as-a-whole, to the institutional city government.  Everyone has the potential of working in the garden and the more that contribute the better the crop produced. This again raises the idea of direct deliberative democracy.  This blog has long argued that the community needs to take over a greater role in governance from institutional government. We can carry our understanding and metaphors of civil society to new neighborhoods and communities but at any specific time we choose to what degree we will participate as part of the on-the-ground community of our geographical location.(See Using Online Communities to encourage Direct Democracy for On-The-Ground Communities and Governance by the Community or Not - Getting with or past City Hall.) Based on the technological reality expressed above, a more radical approach to community engagement can be adopted through practices such as participatory budgeting.

Third, changing the relationship of the community as a whole to institutional government. Institutional government would appear to be put into a relatively more subordinate role, in reality, staff would take on a more facilitative role in working with the community. (See Looking for Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations then Make sure They are Disruptive and Still Looking for Non-Experts to Create New Community Innovations? Look outside City Hall.)  The existing systems arose because of the types of environments we created. Changing the system does not necessarily sufficiently change the environment and we need to change not only what we do but how we do it as well. 

Past Posts