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, August 27, 2014

Getting Real - Concrete Results, World's Shortest and Most Believed Fairy Tale

Over the course of this blog, and most particularly in learning systems thinking at a deeper level and seeking STW/STiA certification, some long assumed and usually unquestioned principles have been challenged. Questioning of entrenched city halls arose along with the questioning of the wisdom of being overly depended on command and control management of governmental institutions, particularly the local public sector, too often disconnected from the community and enmeshed in bureaucratic complicatedness to effectively address ‘wicked’ problems which by their nature are complex. 

Government institutions and the politicians or bureaucrats they shelter invariably focus almost exclusively on the benefits of their projects and programs seldom considering the true costs. Instead, any failures are blamed on unintended consequences or side effects. However, as Thriving on Systems, quoting John Sterman Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World observes:

We frequently talk about side effects as if they were a feature of reality. Not so. In reality, there are no side effects, there are just effects. When we take action, there are various effects. The effects we thought of in advance, or were beneficial, we call the main, or intended effects. The effects we didnt anticipate, the effects - which fed back to undercut our policy, the effects which harmed the system - these are the ones we claim to be side effects. Side effects are not a feature of reality but a sign that our understanding of the system is narrow and flawed. Unanticipated side effects arise because we too often act as if cause and effect were always closely linked in time and space. But in complex systems such as an urban center or a hamster (or a business, society, or ecosystem) cause and effect are often distant in time and space.

The validity of claiming benefit derived from so-called concreteoutcomes should be questioned and seen as a talisman against complexity which with those same entrenched bureaucratic governmental institutions seem unable to cope. This was demonstrated through Systems Dynamics, by its creator J. W. Forrester, Professor Emeritus of Management System Dynamics at MIT in his article, Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems.

An example of this, provided by systemswiki.org, was the Canadian governments attempt to raise revenue by increasing tax on cigarettes to relieve Tax Revenue Pressure, which backfired because actual revenue dropped due to cigarette smuggling from the USA to Canada. There are many other examples of so-called unintended consequences.

The bigger problem though may be with the word concrete, which, as began to be suggested in the last blog post, is in truth an inane metaphor invoking images of unyielding, unchanging, set in stone, hard mass that is supposed to remain uncontested but then a never can happen black Swan event happens and the concrete results crumble. In response, we obsessively return to the pursuit of more concrete outcomes. It may be the worlds shortest and most believed fairy tale. This blog is also guilty of encouraging this dysfunctional approach by trying to reapply the word concrete to processes instead of outcomes to avoid too much exposure to abstract, often translated as touchy-feely thinking. 

Abstract thinking is at the heart of systems thinking and is essential if we are to make changes fundamental enough so that they will result in new community paradigms. Systems thinking provides models or formal abstractions of reality which allows deeper understanding of relationships in general or in specific circumstances without having to substantially impact a community. 

One such model was the Bird Feeder Dilemma (IM-8872), an Insight Maker model featured in the first blog post of this series, Getting Deep into ST - Systems Thinking Certification, in which the model helped demonstrate the reality that it is exceedingly difficult to have only one immediate effect from any action or one immediate cause for any effect since everything in the web of systems making up the world is so interconnected.

One such complex oriented approach was introduced in the last post. The Leveraging Grantmaking: Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Social Systems documented some of the non-linear issues arising from the communitys homelessness problem that had to be first recognized then addressed. 

Creating homeless shelter reduced visibility of the homelessness problem, thereby disabling energy in the larger community to create a long term solution "Shifting the Burden." 

Shifting the Burdenis a systems thinking archetype introduced in Systems Thinking - Looking for Something Concrete.  It is not a concrete thing. It is an abstract construct dependent upon the relation of elements in the particular system which will cease to be if those relationships change.

If systems thinking fails it is because a group is unwilling or unable to address the challenge with the full "system at work" in mind so that any solutions they devise are of a reduced scope because a full scope is seen as too difficult. 

This blog has railed against entrenched systems from which politicians and bureaucratic institutions derive power allowing them not to need to care about benefitting everyone in the community or about being fair. They  simply need to benefit only enough people to ensure getting reelected. Enough people does not have to mean a majority of community members, only a majority of those who turn out to vote every four years by providing the right incentives. If the system disincentives community engagement by significant portions of the community over the long term, it is then a reinforcing influence that contributes to the continuation of that system despite how badly it may appear to function.

However, this applies only to the deep structure of the system, the actors, even some of the structures within the system can change causing continual havoc. As William Powers, noted in his book Behavior: The Control of Perception

"Any system based on the control of behavior through the use of rewards (or, of course, punishments) contains the seeds of its own destruction. There may be a temporary period, lasting even for many generations, during which some exciting new system concept so appeals to people that they will struggle to live within its principles, but if those principles include incentives, which is to say arbitrary deprivation or withholding at the whim of human beings, inexorable reorganization will destroy the system from within: nature intervenes with the message, 'No! That feels bad. Change!’”


If we want to solve problems effectively...we must keep in mind not only many features but also the influences among them. Complexity is the label we will give to the existence of many interdependent variables in a given system. The more variables and the greater their interdependence, the greater the system's complexity. Great complexity places high demands on a planner's capacity to gather information, integrate findings, and design effective actions.

Dorner goes on to assert that, Complexity is not an objective factor but a subjective oneconcluding,Therefore there can be no objective measure of complexity.” Don’t fully agree with this position but it is in accord with my idea of coherent complexity

As has been observed before, systems thinking is often a journey without a roadmap or a set path. Systems modeling is a way of mapping unexplored territory so that others can join or follow. One does not have to be a geographer to follow a roadmap any more than one needs to be a modeler to understand a systems model. But like reading a map you need to know what the symbols mean, especially a topographic map which works in more than two dimensions. 

Systems Thinking, as has been asserted before, is not a thing and shouldnt be seen as such. True progress comes from understanding relationships and their implications in an abstract yet still comprehensive manner. The systems making up our communities and all that derive from them often call for uncommon sense. Unfortunately, as Gene has quipped elsewhere, complexity precludes any guarantees of, theres that word again, concrete outcomes and avoidance of unintended consequences, meaning that systems thinking only provides the opportunity for a good 'at bat'. 

The problem is that there is little to no consistency as to what defines systems thinking, covering as it does a wide range of Soft Systems to Dynamic Systems approaches and multitudes in-between. It is also subject to attack from two different sides often with seemingly weak defense among its own ranks. One from the past has been dealt with previously, the other, more recent, will be addressed in the future. Its detractors often use the very aspects which it is designed to protect against. 


We may not be able to get any concrete results from systems thinking but we can get some real results by being real in the way we address the challenge facing us. Real today though means recognizing the power of the Internet and that means going virtual.

Monday, August 11, 2014

System Thinking - Concrete Wants vs Complex Realities


Over the last two blog posts and throughout the STW/STiA Systems Thinking Certification course the search has been for something concrete in systems thinking which to apply to new community paradigms. The concern arising from the reality that systems thinking can be overly abstract making its adoption problematic was raised in Systems Thinking 2nd Segment - Striving for a Better Understanding and other past articles in this series. The concern that the issues communities must deal with can be too abstract to be readily approachable was raised in relation to complexity in Complexity Addressed From On High and elsewhere. The irony is that systems thinking is supposed to be a means of addressing complexity. It is natural then to look for something concrete to build an effort upon, we want pragmatic solutions without wasting too much time on theory. 

First though we have to define what we mean when we ask for something to be concrete and we are not talking about driveways.  Examined closely, concrete can be a troublesome, imprecise term if not talking about "heavy, rough building material made from a mixture of broken stone or gravel, sand, cement, and water, that can be spread or poured into molds and that forms a stone-like mass on hardening".  

At worse, if we push the metaphor to its fullest extent, a hardened mass, it can then be thought of as a talisman against complexity, in that if we could make all our processes and outcomes concrete then we would never be afflicted by complexity.  At best, concrete serves as a metaphor, not a particularly concrete concept, that can apply to understanding real life problems as in concrete reasoning but used, as we all do, in this manner the word concrete doesn't necessarily mean material. 

For something then to be concrete, it does not have to be something determined by the senses but then it cannot be merely a possibility either. Concrete can still be defined as constituting an actual thing or instance as in the concrete proof of someone's sincerity, or a concrete occurrence of a systems archetype. It should be something existing in fact, as in concrete evidence. It could be the concrete application of a systems leverage point as developed by Donella Meadows. With systems thinking it should be defined in the context of concrete processes rather than focus on concrete outcomes as the Advisory Board does here. Our focus is usually on concrete outcomes with ends excusing means.

The difference, in my own view, is that systems thinking should be focused more on process or means and should be distinct though not separate from outcomes. Outcomes, need their own separate focus and systemic processes, more in line with dynamic systems methods than soft systems methods, but should still be extended from the systems thinking process that came prior in developing the approach. Moreover, systems thinking cannot see itself as being able to provide answers independent of the field with which it is working or be seen as a tactic to be used only occasionally. There has to be deep integration for this to work long term. 

One problem with the term concrete is that it tends to create an image of set in stone and while most would argue against setting strategies in stone, we are inadequate to dealing with multi-loop nonlinear feedback systems which can only be imagined as being dynamic.

In the long history of evolution it has not been necessary until very recent historical times for people to understand complex feedback systems. Evolutionary processes have not given us the mental ability to interpret properly the dynamic behavior of those complex systems in which we are now imbedded.”

A number of papers demonstrate where this can have significant impact. The first, from where the above quote was taken, COUNTERINTUITIVE BEHAVIOR OF SOCIAL SYSTEMS (pdf) is by J. W. Forrester, who was cited in the previous blog post as the founder of Systems Dynamics. The article demonstrates how problems can arise when these principles are ignored.

According to Forrester, our own individual mental models are fuzzy, incomplete, and imprecisely formed, continually changing with time, even in conversation. Even with only a single subject each participant in a conversation employs a different mental model with different fundamental assumptions never brought into the open and different goals left unstated. Our thinking is not as concrete as we would like to think. 

System dynamics computer simulation models, even though they deal with dynamic complex systems are a concrete process. They are explicit about assumptions and how they interrelate by clearly describing concepts that are fully understandable in words through a computer model which forces clarification of ideas so that unclear and hidden assumptions are exposed, examined and debated.

The essential element though is not having a computer but how the computer is used to create the model. The George Box rule, stated before, still applies, all computer models are wrong, but some are useful or as Forrester says in the article.

“With respect to models, the key is not to computerize a model, but, instead, to have a model structure and decision-making policies that properly represent the system under consideration.”

“A good computer model is distinguished from a poor one by the degree to which it captures the essence of a system that it represents.”

The essence of a community system is complex which means the data coming out of it is complex. It does not mean that we necessarily need more data, as Forrester asserts in the article. 

The problem is not shortage of data but rather inability to perceive the consequences of information we already possess. The system dynamics approach starts with concepts and information on which people are already acting.” 

Further along in that same section we arrive at the paradox of complex systems in our society,Generally, behavior is different from what people have assumed.” Forrester goes on to demonstrate how System dynamics models help us understand how difficulties within actual social systems arise, and why so many past  efforts to improve social systems have failed. 

The country has slipped into short-term policies for managing cities that have become part of the system that is generating even greater troubles.

Rather than face the rising population problem squarely, governments try to relieve the immediate pressures by more policemen, financial aid, busing to suburban schools, and subsidized health facilities. As a consequence, increasing population reduces the quality of life for everyone.

With simple systems, causes are close to symptoms of a problem in both time and space. In complex systems or with wicked problems, causes are often far removed in both time and space from the symptoms, lying far back in time and arising from an entirely different part of the system from when and where the symptoms occur, easily misleading us into believing our actions to alleviate the symptoms to be concrete in nature.

Policy improvements in the short run often degrade a system in the long run while policies producing long-run improvements often initially degrade the  system at the start. Because the short run is more visible and more compelling, calling for immediate attention its impact is not really more concrete but more entrenched as Forrester explains.

“However, sequences of actions all aimed at short-run improvement can eventually burden a system with long-run depressants so severe that even heroic short-run measures no longer suffice. Many problems being faced today are the cumulative result of short-run measures taken in prior decades.”

A second article, Leveraging Grantmaking: Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Social Systems, provided to me by Gene in response to a request for something more concrete related to system thinking, demonstrates how programs can be made more successful when these lessons were heeded. The article deals with the development of a 10 year plan to address homelessness in Calhoun County, Michigan (population 100,000). 

A third, Making the Connections  based on the Wellesley Institute Urban Health Model reaches out to the individual community member on issues of community health. Additional concrete examples can be found in A Collection of System Dynamics Consulting Projects.


Monday, August 4, 2014

Systems Thinking - Sailing through Wicked Problems on Complex Seas

Systems thinking helps us not to be so dependent upon linear thinking when addressing complex challenges. This sometimes means skipping ahead then coming back which is the course I am taking in completing the STW/STiA Systems Thinking Certification course, skipping over the segment next in line. 
The final two segments then, prior to certification, introduce us first to different dynamic systems and then to different soft systems methods. Both were referenced before as part of Michael C. Jackson’s System of Systems Methodology (SOSM) framework in the post Enabling a Better Tomorrow through New Community Paradigms via Systems Thinking. Jackson, as he explains in Critical Systems Thinking: Beyond the Fragments sought to, "relate developments in systems thinking to an increased sophistication in coming to terms with extreme complexity and an increased awareness of difficulties posed by the divergent values and interests of stakeholders."
Under Jackson’s classification both dynamic systems and soft systems can be used to address simple, which we will skip over, to complex situations in which there are a large number of elements and subsystems with loosely structured interactions which can be non-linear. The difference is that soft systems are used when working with pluralist stakeholders meaning basic interests are compatible though participants do not share the same values and beliefs while dynamic systems are used when the participants are unitary in outlook, meaning the stakeholders all have similar values, perspectives and interests, at least on the relevant issue. 
Soft Systems Methods are generally employed for purposes of exploration and understanding, to obtain a compatible vision. Dynamic Systems Methods are typically employed for improving goal seeking and viability, once a compatible or finally determined upon vision has been obtained. Both could and should not only be used with systems of direct participatory democracy, they should usually be used in tandem.  This would be in keeping with an often cited concept that, “all hard systems are embedded in soft systems”.
As Dr. Mike Yearworth explains though in Hard Systems and Soft Systems  this statement does not fully capture the differences between the two systemic approaches. It is an epistemic shift, as describe by Peter Checkland and Susan Holwell that defines the differences between hard and soft systems perspectives. 

Soft systems treat the definition as a question of epistemology, as in what can we know or find out about the world? While the hard or dynamic system takes a more ontological approach. Yearworth provides a chart with bullets on the differences between the two approaches. 

There are many concepts and theories that embrace a Soft Systems perspective and are useful for exploratory purposes to attain greater understanding and potentially draft a compatible approach to the wicked problem.  Appreciative Inquiry, Idealized Design, and Soft Systems Methodology are three offered in the segment because they each have a well defined approach for their use. These will be examined more closely in the future.
System Dynamics and Viable Systems Model are two dynamic systems  featured in this segment because they also have a well defined method for using them. Dynamic systems and in particular Systems Dynamics is where the process can get all the more concrete. Systems Dynamics, a field also related to Cybernetics, goes beyond Systems Thinking which can be seen as a relatively qualitative modeling system. System Dynamics, in contrast, is a rigorous methodology employing the development and use of formal computer models based on three components which collectively define it.
  1. Apply the accepted system dynamics theory of structure;
  2. Are constructed following the scientific method; and
  3. Use best practice tools and techniques.

Another dynamic system, Viable Systems Model (VSM), developed by Stafford Beer, could be considered more abstract. As explained by Systemswiki, "It is an organizational representation of the elements and interactions considered essential for any system to be viable or autonomous".  It is  therefore not a method or process but a model of:
“A viable system being one that is organized and operates in a manner such as to survive in its changing environment. Adaptability is one of the prime features of systems that survive. (Adapted from Wikipedia)”
Beer, himself, narrates this video explanation on the Basis for the Viable Systems Model from Javier Livas - YouTube page.
A primary foundation for the Viable Systems Model is Ross Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety, or as is sometimes paraphrased,"only complexity absorbs complexity”. 
"The Law has many forms, but it is very simple and common sensical: a model system or controller can only model or control something to the extent that it has sufficient internal variety to represent it."

Arguably #3  of Clemson’s Systems Laws considered valid for all complex systems (Clemson seems to have added more laws. Kauffman also came up with a set of rules of thumb for complex systems as viewed by systems thinking. My suggested rules for community complexity are here.) 
This could then be applied to Beer's environment, process and management as explained in the video, which would suggest that enhanced participation by community members would make the process more viable and sustainable from a community point of view.
The system though only has to survive, it does not have to reach any predetermined goals that we desire or that we may expect from the system. An entrenched city hall, often mentioned on these pages, can then be a viable system highly resistant, internally, to attempts to change it, externally. 
The challenge and the need for some type of virtual systemic inquiry is that complexity is inherent in all phases that should be undertaken by communities addressing a wicked problem. Not only the phases are complex, the transitions are complex. To simply understand a wicked problem is a complex challenge in itself as demonstrated by this Ted Talk by Gavin Schmidt, The Emergent Patterns of Climate Change. The next phase is understanding and developing an agreed upon approach to address the wicked problem. Final stage is implementing that program and ensuring that it creates the desired results.
If it does not then it means moving back to a previous phase. Perhaps the vision created in the second phase was not as unified or compatible as thought. Perhaps it was realized that a significant minority did not support the plan but it was not appreciated how important they would be in implementation. It could also be that the wicked problem system was not as well understood as it needed to be to come up with a viable strategy that was not only devised as compatible through collaborative efforts but could be implemented through collaborative actions. One question then is how viable over an extended period would a winner take all strategy be under such an approach?

The bigger question is how the community manages the complexity that arises in addressing the wicked problem from its own actions, when complexity is seen as a massive problem in its own right. Systems thinking provides different means of navigation, with different ones better suited to the task at different times but these means often tend towards the abstract and more concrete means are needed to sail these seas. What is needed are more concrete tools of collaboration, compasses and sextants applied to systemic inquiry and these days it needs to include the virtual sea of the World Wide Web. Looking to the development of such a system is the next (previously skipped over) segment.

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