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 30, 2016

Asset Based Community Development Lessons for Systems Thinking

In the last post, Cormac Russell, faculty member of the ABCD Institute at Northwestern University, Illinois, now DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois and Managing Director of Nurture Development, the leading Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) organization in Europe, was introduced by this blog. He was contrasted with a more ‘Collective Impact’ approach to ABCD. In this post, we will look at the approach taken by Cormac and Nurture Development and contrast them with the approach taken by this effort, especially Systems Thinking. Such contrasts are more in the nature of different sides of a dice rather than mutually exclusive opposites. 

As was mentioned in the last post, Cormac seems far more likely to write about 'collective' in terms of, direct collective energy towards collective action or, a way that is inclusive and supports people to generate disparate energy into collective democratic power", rather than the often top down methodology of Collective Impact. A problem with Grasstop oriented Collective Impact is that citizen leaders can often be stuck in silos as readily as government departments can. 

At the recent TEDXExter 2016, Cormac gave a talk on Sustainable community development: from what's wrong to what's strong, arguing that we need to start with what's strong within a community instead of trying to right what we see as wrong. We can grapple with humanity’s toughest questions by helping people in discovering what gifts they have and using those gifts to enrich those around them and help people to define and to live a good life. For more background there is John McKnight Keynote Speech about the history, practice and future of Asset Based Community Development from the 2016 ABCD Festival and What is Asset Based Community Development? (in under four minutes)  (more videos).

Now the videos will provide you with a pretty clear, concise and complete idea of what Asset Based Community Development is and what it tries to accomplish, so if you are still reading and haven’t watched yet, you should. If you have watched then you might want to stop and reflect a bit then come back.

In Cormac's TEDXExter video, he uses a familiar term in Systems Thinking, 'unintended consequences'. In this case, of our current institutional, often bureaucratic attempts at helping people in our communities, listing four of them.

The first unintended consequence is defining people not by their gifts, capacities and what they can bring to the solution but by their deficiencies and their problems. The second unintended consequence resulting from a top-down obsession is that money doesn’t go to those who actually need the help.  Instead, it goes to those who are paid to provide the services to those who need help. The third unintended consequence is that active citizenship, the power to take action and to respond at the grassroots level, retreats in the face of ever-increasing technocracy driven by professionalism and expertise and finally. 

With the fourth unintended consequence, Cormac mentions another Systems Thinking term or tool, mapping. Entire neighborhoods, entire communities which have been defined as deficient will start to internalize an imposed a negative 'map' and believe that the only way that anything is going to change for them is when some outside expert with the right program and the right money comes in to rescue them these so-called unintended harms.

At this point, I may have a tendency to start having some different perspectives from Cormac. Before making too much of this though, I should state my own perspective that maps should be seen as raising questions, not providing answers. Maps are launching points for exploration, one can always provide more detail and deeper understanding or one can move beyond the edges. It is easy enough to take maps for granted which is invariably done all the time but that is merely intellectual laziness. 

A viable way to be collective and inclusive from the bottom up, according to Cormac and those with a similar mind set, is to work through the concept of the communal Commons to enable some type of Coalition of the Doing in determining the relationship between Capitalism And the Commons. Such an approach encourages communities to ask questions such as, does growth equal success? (Hint - no it doesn't).

ABCD has the capacity to encompass a rather expansive view of community. It can take a neighbor to neighbor approach as did Tamarack's Abundant Community Edmonton which is part of its campaign to work towards the promise of deepening community. It can also take an institutional city government approach, as with Our London is a city of Neighbourhoods, London, Ontario, Canada that is.

Cormac is concerned with institutions using asset mapping to build data about the assets of communities, like an inventory, instead of supporting those communities by first building relationships and then connecting the assets. Even so, he provided a practical and fun way to start a conversation about community assets without any theory. The point according to Cormac is remembering asset mapping is an inside job focused on relationship building not data collection. Similarly with Systems Thinking, it is the relationship between people and assets that brings about the potential for emergent capacities of the community. The challenge is keeping the focus on the community. 

One possible way of keeping the focus on community could be through a digital community and virtual collaboration. The later is one area I am currently working on through a Systems Thinking approach. The Leeds Digital Festival is one example of a real world community, working as a digital community, leading the process to understand themselves, rather than depending upon others to do it for them. This, however, presents a whole new set of decisions according to Usman Haque

Being that we are focusing on community, it seemed that there should be a potential but true synergy between the work of Placemaking, as in the creation of Community Places (wiki-page) done by organizations such as Project for Public Spaces and Asset Based Community Development (wiki-page) work being done by Nurture Development and other organizations, if one takes the view that Placemaking is to places what ABCD is to people. Having admitted not knowing that much about ABCD, I asked the experts. Project 4 Public Spaces told me Placemaking is indeed inspired by and connected to Asset-Based Community Development and the good folks at @ABCD_Global agreed.

The area of greatest interest is in the creation of Healthy Cities (wiki-page) and communities. Cormac Russell is seen as a sort of Medical Heretic, in a good way, by the Home | World Health Innovation Summit's blog. In particular with efforts at Place Based Health through which community social work moves away from an assessment/case management approach and shifts from what's wrong to what's strong. This approach promotes the concept of 'social prescribing' and other ideas redefining, the Future of Medicine.

"We have to build circumstances to allow General Practitioner practices to engage with local community and support asset-based community development,” according to  Dr. Amir Hannan of the Haughten Thornley Medical Centres (another Cormac fan site) in Hyde, Cheshire, United Kingdom, and chairperson of the World Health Innovation Summit (WHIS).

Simply claiming, "Improving health? Start local" does not align with an ABCD framework and misappropriating the name does not change that. Fundamentally because Asset-Based Community Development is not an alternative to Services. The differences, beyond a tendency to want to ‘fix’ somebody, are though suspected to be more complex than I am appreciating not having enough specific knowledge of the issues under consideration being, 'Across the pond.' More importantly,  As Cormac's Black Swans White Swans and Ugly Ducklings article states, "Mapping people’s journey towards wellbeing in this way is deeply problematic, especially if we harbour aspirations towards deeper democracy. It obscures from view the capacities that exist within and around people that can be used to secure what is required for a good life in any and all climates."   

According to Cormac,"With ABCD efforts when you aim to scale; prepare to fail. Instead, try focusing on proliferation of deep practice and abandon fidelity to model,” because 'What Communities Build For Themselves, They Won't Destroy’. This may appear an antithesis to Systems Thinking (wiki-page), it is generally acknowledged that, "All models are wrong, some are useful". However, while acknowledged, part of the rationale for this post is that while often professed it is not as often followed. Taking a rather different perspective can assist in bring such models closer to the truth of the world.


  1. Asset mapping provides information about the strengths and resources of a community and can help uncover solutions. Community asset maps take many forms, from simple lists that fit on a single piece of paper to extensive reports and geographic maps. You can create all forms of community maps with Creately Asset Mapping Tool .

  2. Thanks for the link. I plan on giving it a closer look.


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