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.

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

Past Posts