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, March 26, 2014

Art as a Path of Social Disruptive Innovation Towards New Community Paradigms

One source of the material for this blog’s posts is LinkedIn group discussions in which I participate or follow. A common theme across two different types of LinkedIn groups, the Community Engagement group and the Economic Development Professionals group, regarding the role of the arts in communities was recently noted. The perspectives and approaches are different but can be tied together under new community paradigms.

A Community Engagement question was, What's the impact of community art projects? A common response to this question leans towards finding the right metrics in terms of economic impact. However, as a result of new resources added to the New Community Paradigms Community Arts wiki-page, I now believe that focus is limited, that we make a mistake if we only think of integrating art and especially artistic thinking into our systems of community as window dressing for our economic development activities. We should instead be looking to art as a means of transforming and invigorating not only our economic development activities but also our community design and community governance as well.

Perceiving these connections was not mere chance, though. The unrealized contribution that art could make to creating new paradigms for our communities has become more credible over time and is not a solitary perspective. Paul Nagle, Executive Director of Cultural Strategies Initiative left a comment regarding this blog's post The Problem with the Future is Getting There and It will need Disruptive Innovation, "We totally agree with your thesis and we are working to put it into practice.” Cultural Strategies Initiative or CSI sees art being key to not only human expression and human thought but also to education, economies, community development, and innovation in technology. All factors of importance to the creation of new community paradigms.

"At CSI, we create project partnerships to demonstrate and measure how arts operate in promoting sustainability and resiliency. Our projects always target the same outcome: empower the arts and humanity.”
This suggests that art has the potential of establishing a path for sustainable disruption while at the same time going beyond sustaining innovation. Art could help communities face wicked challenges by moving towards being entities of complex collaboration and away from being ensnared by entrenched city halls through bureaucratic-like institutions of complicatedness.

It was interactions with other LinkedIn colleagues that led to EmcArts, a social enterprise for learning and innovation in the arts. Although they primarily serve as a nonprofit intermediary for many arts funders, and as a service organization for the arts field around innovation, from my perspective, they could also offer insights that would strengthen the capacities and effectiveness of all types of community nonprofits and other change agents, not just arts and cultural organizations. They could provide lessons in the design and management of innovative change, and assist communities in building their adaptive capacity.

One potentially useful resource for communities is, a creation of the EmcArts Activating Innovation Initiative. Their latest accomplishments include a National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture from October of last year that featured powerful thematically linked 12-minute Talks by bold leaders from across the country that highlighted the remarkable and mostly untold stories of innovative projects unfolding in arts and culture organizations. These included - Taking Collective Action, Co-Creating with the Public, Artists as Agents of Change, Animating Neighborhoods, Citizenship and the Arts and Transforming Organizational Structure. The creation of Fueling Adaptive Capacity: A Mosaic of Learning from the 2013 National Innovation Summit was an outcome of the summit, which you can download and read. As well as this report that describes their accomplishments over the last two years.

The contribution of meaningful real-world solutions that art can make towards community challenges, such as gentrification by exploring complex challenges around themes of scope, capacity, and constituency, was demonstrated by Fourth Arts Block, an organization supporting a rich arts community on the Lower East Side of New York and beyond.

Since its founding in 2001, FABnyc has made huge strides in the East 4th Street Cultural District by securing property ownership rights for arts groups in eight buildings on the block between the Bowery and Second Avenue, by providing free and low-cost rehearsal space and training programs for artists, and by serving as a centralized resource for its several arts, cultural, community member organizations.
This cannot be a one-way contribution or one-sided conversation, though. Communities seeking to create new community paradigms need to make a place at the table for this type of thinking. Artistic thinking should be added to design thinking and systems thinking as means of generating public and community innovation. Design thinking can help ensure that artistically inspired endeavors properly focus on important community needs and systems thinking can help in understanding the impact on the larger environment. Artistic thinking though can help reach deeper insights, generate more ideas and seep into the community's fabric so that its influence becomes one more of dispersion within a complex community system rather than a transfer of information from one institution to another. Richard Evans, President, EMCARTS INC contributes insights with the Debunking 10 Myths of Innovation that could be of great benefit to communities.

An artistic perspective should not be left to the end but made foundational in community design through design thinking, systems thinking, and other approaches. A number of other organizations are able to tie an artistic mindset to community-related concerns, Art VULUPS does so with geography, environmental science, land use planning, sustainability, art and creativity concepts. Animating Democracy, a project of Americans for the Arts helps to identify, develop, and advocate for public and private sector policies, practices, funding, and initiatives that advance the role of the arts in fostering citizen participation and social change. They work to better integrate the talents of artists and cultural organizations toward helping people engage in civic and community life.

By establishing a trend away from massively subsidized development projects to broader-based efforts such as economic gardening, communities open up opportunities for a more community based and artistic approach to building, landscaping and public space related to Community Placemaking. These efforts could be enhanced through what the National Endowment for the Arts terms Community Placemaking. Our Town NEA works to improve America’s communities by engaging design and leveraging the arts to create livable, sustainable neighborhoods with enhanced quality of life, increased creative activity, distinct identities, a sense of place, and vibrant local economies that capitalize on existing local assets.

Another Community Engagement group LinkedIn discussion provides more empirical evidence that the Arts make a real difference to communities through the report, The value of arts and culture to people and society – an evidence review from the Arts Council (England).

Another discussion under the Economic Professionals group provides a more definitive assertion of the economic impact of art based on an article Arts and culture contribute more to the US economy than tourism, and with added insight from the Preliminary Report on Impact of Arts and Culture on U.S. Economy | NEA released by the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. These are only preliminary assessments of the impact of an economy produced by a creative community but now that we are measuring it instead of ignoring it more of the same can be expected in the future.

A revolution has already started but it won't only be an economic one, it will be creative in multiple ways. People are already working to make a difference. They may not always realize that they are fighting the same battle as people from other sectors of the community and are therefore not alone. We need to start learning from each other, community planners, entrepreneurs whether business or social, community activists and artists all need to learn from each other. Our communities need to engage in more than one type of thinking to meet the wicked challenges ahead and no one person or group of persons alone will be able to create the new community paradigms that are needed without extensive within-the-community collaboration.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

“How Do I Make Use of this Systems Thinking Stuff?” in Creating New Community Paradigms

Systems thinking is part of the new paradigms for communities being advocated by this blog. The majority of learning tools regarding systems thinking used by this effort were provided, either directly or indirectly, by the Systems Thinking in Action LinkedIn group and its manager Gene Bellinger.

Gene also played an important role in the development of this blog’s latest posts on systems thinking, Beginning using Systems Thinking for New Community Paradigms, not just talking about it and Better Deliberative and Participatory Democratic Community Based Governance through Systems Thinking.

Recently, he asked a basic question about systems thinking, “How do I make use of this systems thinking stuff?” The question then arises not from any form of general ignorance but as a means, based on experience, in providing a learning opportunity. As Gene stated himself, “If you would consider this as a question posed in earnest by someone really looking for guidance and respond in kind I would be most appreciative.”

My involvement with systems thinking started from the outside looking in by seeing the possibility of Systems Thinking as a disciplined process for Community Governance, never having asked the question in such a straight forward manner up until now. This makes me somewhat closer to the earnest but unlearned questioner than to the standard Systems Thinking in Action member. This may be a benefit, as it appears that some in systems thinking are better at talking to others in systems thinking than to the general public.

Dear Earnest Questioner,

I am writing in response to your question “How do I make use of this systems thinking stuff?” Since I am focusing on community issues and you are asking from an organizational perspective, I am going to amend the question to “How do we make use of this systems thinking stuff?” and cover some general aspects while providing you with some additional resources to review, if you want.

I won’t spend too much time directly on defining what is systems thinking? I will let others address that from a number of different perspectives.  There isn’t, I suspect, any definition with which everyone will fully agree.

What Is Systems Thinking?
“Systems thinking utilizes habits, tools and concepts to develop an understanding of the interdependent structures of dynamic systems. When individuals have a better understanding of systems, they are better able to the identify the leverage points that lead to desired outcomes.”
Waters Foundation           

In general terms, systems thinking can help you and your community to see both the proverbial forest and the trees and how they define each other which will help in facing the seemingly intractable and difficult challenges of your community.

First, systems thinking can provide you and your community with a new way of looking at the world. Second, systems thinking can provide you and your community a new way of approaching the world. Third, systems thinking can provide you and your community a new way of interacting with the world.

Now it may seem an inefficient use of words to write three sentences instead of one but systems thinking(pdf) is a far newer way of looking at the world than the reductionistic and mechanistic approach that came out of the age of Newton, and is radically (as in fundamentally) different from how we are usually taught to understand the world.

Both the mechanistic, reductionistic approach and the systems thinking approach break whatever is being studied into smaller parts but systems thinking emphasizes the relationships between the parts. So it makes sense to break down a question about systems thinking and look at individual aspects and how they relate to each other.

The primary thing, unsurprisingly, is that systems thinking approaches that world and its contents as systems. It does not matter which specific system or set of circumstances with which you are working, biological, engineering, social, economic, computers, if it consists of multiple elements related to each other in a dynamic fashion then systems thinking can be applied to its processes.

Systems thinking then is not merely a matter of adopting a new process or strategy, it is a different way of thinking about and understanding the world, particularly complex challenges facing communities or what are also known as wicked problems. The ones that you may believe we have no hope in solving because they are just too complex.

Systems thinking is a means of addressing complexity. Complexity arises out of the systems we create or attempt to harness but its impact is so great and its reach is so intrusively intwining that it can be considered an entity in and of itself.

Using systems based on attempts to apply mechanistic physics Newtonian and reductionistic methodologies to business and human capital, we have created numerous institutions based on these principles which impose strategies of ‘complicatedness’ in an attempt to box in and control the inherent complexity emerging from those systems that we have attempted to harness or created. This brings up a whole other set of issues. The problem is that the approach that we have usually adopted in understanding the world and implementing solutions to problems often falls short causing unintended, bigger problems.

Systems thinking, broadly defined, presumes multiple elements and agents. Turning to some of the many resources from Systems thinking helps in Enabling a Better Tomorrow by providing a common platform in realizing today’s reality. If you clicked on the link at the end of the last sentence you were taken to an systems thinking model. This type of model was introduced in the Beginning using Systems Thinking for New Community Paradigms, not just talking about it post as an efficient means of collaborative graphic communication.

There is an arrow in the bottom right hand corner of the model that if clicked will unfold the elements making up this particular system model of ‘reality’. Reality needs quotes here because we are imposing our own definition on but it is a definition can be made apparent and shared by all.

If you are absolutely fine with the results of top down management control of both information and decision making and its results, then systems thinking may not be for you. However, if you believe that something needs to drastically change to the extent of inducing a paradigm shift in our communities then perhaps systems thinking is something you should consider but you will need not to not only change your own perspective on the world but also create a platform that does the same for others and that continuously does so.

This brings up the second benefit of systems thinking as a new way of approaching the world. It is one thing though to understand the world by whichever means one chooses, it is another to determine how to approach that world, especially if it involves other people. Better Deliberative and Participatory Democratic Community Based Governance through Systems Thinking was an initial step in dealing with this aspect. Even if a system does not require input from others, it will still involve the participation of others as agents. If this doesn’t then it is likely a simpler problem that could be addressed by a more algorithmic approach.

Experience tells me that not everyone will agree with your model, not even your basic premise. The point though is not to win arguments but to attain a better understanding and to find optimal, mutually beneficial solutions whenever possible. Others may realize that your proposed system needs to be expanded to include other relevant elements. Others may be able to see missing elements or missing connections or may take a completely different approach.

This is not such a great approach if your primary goal is to have personal power over the system. However, presuming that you are working for the benefit of the system with which you are concerned, it is an excellent way to discover optimal solutions and avoid unintended consequences.

So you and your community have changed how you look at the world seeing it as interrelated and your approach to it as more collaborative but you still have to create and impose viable solutions. This is where things can get sticky.
"Systems thinking can be powerful, but too often remains an abstraction. The challenge for us all is to develop our systems thinking skills, help others develop their capabilities and bring systems thinking into our everyday lives -- to move beyond slogans and on to action."
There is still a tremendous gap between the general public and the experts in the field of systems thinking in my view. In part, the problem is too many and too much in terms of resources with a myriad of highly evolved approaches. General systems thinking discussions are too often scholastic in nature, and I mean that in the medieval sense, going on endlessly into multiple tangents, not helping reach a solution with whatever challenge a community may be facing. This, however, is an issue with systems thinkers not system thinking. From a community perspective you need to do more than just hire some experts in systems thinking to interact and address your challenges for you. The gap needs to be narrowed from both sides. For you, this will involve initiating the first two steps already provided. This is one of the primary benefits of systems thinking, its proper application improves not only the situation at hand but its future application as well. It will also likely require a disruption of at least some extent of the existing system. It is my hypothesis that systems thinking can play a role in that as well.

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