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.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Systems Practice versus Thinking pt 2

The last post returned to the Systems Practice course begun earlier this year and defined certain of its operational terms, such as factors, forces, and themes as pieces in the creation of a system puzzle or map. This post will continue explaining the systems practice process of putting those pieces together contrasted more generally with systems thinking and with Kumu mapping. The question that will remain on hold, for now, is how does this apply to alleviating homelessness? This must be addressed first to effectively apply the methodology. 

In Kumu mapping, factors are elements. It is the Kumu connections forming relationships between elements that represent forces.  Similar to gravity as a force only occurring when two or more bodies are in relation to each other. A theme, or collection of commonly related forces, is not quite yet a Causal Loop. To be a loop, those forces and themes need to be organized into a persistent feedback configuration. Until then these themes organized into connected forces are what I call causal influence pathways. One such pathway or theme could then be "cost of living” which might consist of a number of different enabling and inhibiting forces among them  "community bonding" as the interaction of which served as a means of stabilization that lessened the negative impacts that occurred when the cost of living increased because households within a community decided to share resources.

An interim step particular to Systems Practice before finalizing the creation of feedback loops is S.A.T. or Structural, Attitudinal, Transactional analysis. The purpose of SAT  is again to assist in being holistic in the analysis by avoiding focusing solely on those things best known to one's own particular background such as an economist tending toward only economic forces or a social worker focusing only on social forces.

SAT classification is supposed to help make sure that your group is taking a holistic approach when identifying factors and building loops by identifying causes and effects, as well as later in the course when the focus is on leverage points for building a strategy on how to more readily change the system. Once, however, these loops are woven into a systems map there is no longer a need for the formal labeling of SAT and it can fall away as a separate artifact.

There isn't any formal connection between SAT and  Kumu mapping. SAT according to Rob the course's instructor, can be thought of as scaffolding and the Kumu map as the building. The scaffolding helps one in constructing the building but then as said falls away when you are done. I have the same metaphor in mind when applying systems thinking to participatory democracy. It is a means not an end in of itself.

A common systems thinking tool that I believe could be related to SAT analysis and be useful in helping those not familiar with the methodology is the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. It could be introduced again early in the course and definitely prior to SAT. The Iceberg Model as a meta-perspective of the system does not fall away as does SAT but maintains direct correspondence with the Systems Practice components aligning factors to events, aligning loops and themes to patterns, both SAT and the Iceberg have a structural component, and finally the attitudinal aspect of Systems Practice corresponding to the Systems Iceberg mental model level. 

Another subsequent step that systems practice takes, as part of a dynamic and holistic analysis in identifying feedback loops through putting the pieces together is an Upstream-Downstream analysis. Following any factor or element in the direction of its connecting arrows to another factor, which denotes cause, defines downstream relationships and any arrows connecting into any factor from another factor, denoting effect, defines upstream relationships is the basis for Upstream-Downstream analysis.

The Upstream-Downstream analysis becomes the "seeds" or relevant puzzle pieces in the process of loop building by identifying a few important connections to start the process of identifying persistent patterns. Moving from an Upstream-Downstream analysis to actually building feedback loops though is not a one to one transition. The loops, once created, take on an importance of their own moving beyond what was captured in the Upstream-Downstream analysis. By the time one gets to the Upstream-Downstream analysis, and then subsequently to creating the feedback loops, any distinctions one might assume between enablers and inhibitors tends to break down. 

The course's concepts of upstream/downstream or cause/effects are then arguably dependent on which element was the starting point.  Because a feedback loop (A —> B —> C —> A, etc.)  of forces or dynamics are circular upstream-downstream analysis is artificial because if you travel far enough along a closed loop, any upstream factor will also be downstream.  Start at B then A is upstream and C is downstream. "Happiness" could be seen as a driver and as an enabler for “Wealth,” which could then become an enabler in turn seen to drive “Happiness”.

Overly simple loops though, those with just two factors such as, “Wealth" > “Happiness” —> “Wealth" indicate a need to zoom in and ask what is it about wealth that leads to increased happiness? Is this always the case? Does wealth sometimes lead instead to depression and unhappiness? If so, why? What other factors explain why these patterns vary?

In assembling loops, factors need to be worded as nouns that can be scaled up or down. The "level of corruption" is a more appropriate factor label than is a "high level of corruption". There isn't  a correlation though between how specifically worded a factor is or how elaborate a loop is for the potential of that loop to produce insights into how to engage a system.  The most powerful loops of three to four factors having both profound meaning and being simply worded can be termed “elegant,”

From a non-technical, more social perspective, similar to one provided during Systems Thinking Certification, factors could be thought of as characters in a novel interacting with other characters with arrows showing causal connections and forming sub-plots through loops. Taken together, these sub-plots will form a plot and eventually a rich story or novel through a dynamic system map. 

All of this leads to reassembling or stitching together or I would suggest quilting together a systems map. First though is determining what was the referred to as the Deep Structure of the system from the myriad of enabling and inhibiting themes and forces that ended up becoming loops. This will be revealed in the next post.

As one of our teammates said, an advantage of drawing Kumu maps is finding dependencies and loops where they were not necessarily obvious. This is the main outcome of connecting many different feedback loops into a systems map. It is according to Rob the interconnection among the loops that surfaces dependencies and more importantly, areas of possible leverage for making longer-term systems change. 

A further question arose, in creating a Kumu map, as for whether the more granular we can get the more likely we are to find unseen things. Rob used examples from the financial crisis to come up with factors such as debt, rich people hoarding money so it's not available to the economy, bad institutional practices by bankers and others. However, going deeper into technical details like derivate pricing likely would not help in coming up with a useful solution. He asserted, if however, we identify that the prevailing market economy doctrine is not based on scientific fact but has rather become something more like a religious paradigm, we then add a substantial insight into the whole picture. That is a tremendously large step though to take a group through unless they are already inclined, perhaps in some cases too inclined, to such a view.

This brings me to yet another suggested systems thinking based resource and that is Donella Meadows' Twelve Leverage Points as at least a background resource. 

As I have said before, using the development of the concept of time in navigation as a metaphor, I see Kumu mapping as a means of latitudinal thinking in relation to the more common linear or longitudinal thinking that together help in making a global complex perspective more possible.

I started, as I usually do, directly mapping relationships after creating a few experimental maps to test out some ideas, identifying factors from there and developing loops directly and building the map from there. Again, I have to admit that a result of my approach was that it allowed narrowing the focus to an overly limited path. Others, using the Systems Practice approach, with limited or no systems thinking background, provided important insights, like being able to look at the picture on the puzzle box blown up but perhaps not having the necessary pieces themselves.

The course's instructor Rob had spoken of the difficulties of mapping in a fifth-week video.  I could see his point if I had followed the Systems Practice procedure from the beginning as it was very different from my usual approach. 

One of the primary issues that systems thinking seeks to address though is the tendency of people to only look at factors in immediate or near immediate approximation. What then may be an enabling force in one loop may become an inhibiting force in another related loop. In this aspect, systems practice may be a bit weaker for those with less experience in systems thinking.

Instead of considering enabling and inhibiting forces, I focused on adds to or moves in the same direction and detracts from or moves in the opposite direction of Causal Loop Diagram building, letting the system tell me what was enabling or inhibiting over an extended number of degrees across the system. This becomes all the more important when transitioning from abstract mapping to applying the lessons learned to the real world wicked challenge. Because I do not want to see this process be a “one-off” in community empowerment, I will add, even recognizing it being far more involved, one other suggested systems thinking resource to be included and that is systems thinking archetypes

This completes the critique of the system's practice process from a first time, limited understanding perspective. It is undoubtedly necessary to take the course oneself to verify what has been suggested but we can get some further idea of its utility. How then did we map out the specific challenge of addressing homelessness?

Systems Practice versus Thinking pt 1

Since January 31 of this year, I have been involved in a course titled Systems Practice but haven’t written about it since February 4.  For myself, there were three objectives in taking this course. One, come up with some useful insights for Jo Foraker's endeavors to create the Last Mile Food Truck as a sustainable system to provide nutritious food to the unsheltered homeless living in camps around Portland, Oregon featured in the blog series Modeling the Last Mile to Feed the Homeless parts 1 to 6.  Next, in doing so, to demonstrate the potential of systems thinking to assist in coming up with practical solutions. Third, to do so through real world interactions with nine other individuals, though still online, group process. It has to be admitted that there have been some challenges with all three. 

My involvement in the Last Mile Food Truck concept has been in existence through two other Philanthropy University / Acumen courses, Financial Modeling and Social Impact. Those courses demonstrated that what the Last Mile Food Truck project was attempting to accomplish, finding effective means of addressing homelessness, was far more complex than might first be assumed

The course sought to answer three questions beyond the specifics of any particular challenge. One, how does the environment within which you work operate as a complex, dynamic system? The course helped with this by taking a distinct approach to systems thinking. Two, how will your strategy engage the system in order to have a highly leveraged impact? The course endeavored to assist here as well though that depends on the level of achieved leverage. Three, how will you test your assumptions and hypotheses so you can learn and adapt effectively was considered though not really addressed at least not by our efforts.

Something first needs to be established before proceeding further. I will have to declare here that systems practice both significantly informed the approach I contributed over time and induced me to substantially change it in ways during the course that I would not have if I had worked solely on my own. 

Second, this analysis will be abstract, looking at meta-issues related to homelessness. The decision to make the tangible effort to feed the unsheltered homeless or any act of social contribution is not based on how viable or sustainable a system to do so is. It is based on moral conviction which can be a driving force even under conditions of impact which are exceedingly limited or even diminishing. Any inability to establish a viable, sustainable system does not lessen the worthiness of the effort. There are, however, realities that have to be met to establish such systems. 

One suggested insight that arose from past explorations is that the human etiology of homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, could be defined as community-lessness, not a lack of physical shelter, as bad as that obviously is but the lack of truly viable community that arises from being in that situation. Qualitatively, in terms of psychological well-being, this is a far more detrimental situation compared to someone who is poor but still has a home and is still part of a community. Even if a community is destitute, it often has systems in place to help its members cope. Social support systems in this country may be created for the very low income but more for those who still fit within society’s framework. The homeless for the greater part do not, so programs need to be specially designed for them. The homeless instead need to adapt to the system as it exists, the system does not adapt to them and even upon adapting, the homeless still remain outside the system which is often more interested in control than it is in true integration.

The most viable long-term social community-based solution to homelessness may be the creation and provision of permanent housing, as the aforementioned study coming out of Calhoun County, Michigan indicated That though will take an extended amount of time and the homeless, in the meantime, need food for sustenance and nutrition to maintain health. Our current food systems, however, are not well designed to assist the homeless, especially those who are not in shelters.

This post and the next are meant to look more specifically at the process of systems practice and how it relates to systems thinking because I don't believe they are quite the same thing. It took awhile though to realize that the differences were due to systems practice's attempt to focus on group interactions in coming up with solutions. Despite having finally come in line with the systems practice way, there are still a few things I would like to see be done differently. 

I had some background in systems thinking but came with my cup perhaps too full. In some ways, I had been working backward until about more than half way before coming in alignment with the course and with the team. I had a personal problem with the advertised use of Kumu mapping not occurring until after the third week. Personal, because I started using Kumu just a little before the beginning of the course which put me out of alignment with the course or perhaps more accurately with the others on the team.

Many people taking the course were more likely familiar with the usual linear reductionist approach to understanding which means breaking things up into smaller pieces for ostensibly better control. The challenge then is developing a means of helping them to cross over to a more holistic, systems thinking or in this case a systems practice perspective through a group process. I don’t believe, however, that there was a strong enough foundation in systems thinking provided at the beginning of the course and introducing Kumu at the very start could have helped with that.

Systems Practice introduced terms such as factors, forces, enablers, inhibitors, and themes as parts of their approach to systems thinking.  Unfortunately, these operational terms were not defined either adequately or precisely enough, at least in my view, often being exchanged with other terms generating some confusion and necessitating questions raised by one of our teammates. Those questions provided a substantial amount of information for what is written in this critique. The terms are all intended to result in the end in the creation of feedback loops (Causal Loop Diagrams) familiar to systems thinking but prior to that Systems Practice has a few unique steps of its own. It wasn't clear until later in the course but thanks to the questions asked by one of our teammates and others, we can start with defining what is a factor?

In Systems Practice a factor, according to Rob Ricigliano the course instructor, is "something, a person, an environmental condition, an attitude, an institution, a phenomenon, etc., that makes other things happen or has agency." What in terms of map display Kumu calls elements. That one thing or a factor changing another thing could also be thought of as a driver, which according to the course could be categorized as either enabling or inhibiting within the system under question.

The first step then in the Systems Practice mapping process is brainstorming as many factors as possible related to the system under review, based on a previously established mission focus through what the course calls the Guiding Star, Near Star and Framing Question created prior by the group. Skipping this earlier part, for now, this stage then is only a collection of factors at this point in the mapping, presumed to be part of a system but with no real understanding as of yet of the relationships, like cutting up a picture for pieces of a puzzle. To emphasize the point, a collection is not a system, it requires dynamic or purposeful assembly.

The course then has participants collect factors or drivers together into separate clusters as either enablers or inhibitors. It is necessary now to stop and insert the System Practice concepts of forces and themes. These served supposedly as an intertwining path or steps that resulted in confusion for me as to how they all relate to the overall Systems Practice process. 

Taking a step back with the benefit of some hindsight, they are part of the dynamic assembly mentioned above occurring after factor collection. We spoke before of factors being drivers as either enablers or inhibitors. Enablers and inhibitors can also be thought of as forces. In the process of separating enabling forces from inhibiting forces, it is also possible to subsequently combine such forces into various themes or collections of common ideas. 

So a collection of related enablers should become a cluster of enablers or an enabling theme and the same is done then with inhibitors. Similar, it would seem, to the practice of separating outside, edge puzzle pieces from inside pieces or sky pieces from the ground ones. 

It is presumed to be less confusing for a group if the clusters are made up of either all enablers or all inhibitors but it can result in getting clusters with the same names on both the inhibitor side and the enabler side such as enabling factors that drive the cost of living down alongside inhibitors that drive that same cost of living up. It will then end up being suggested doing two different types of loops based on a particular thematic cluster, one on the dynamics that drive the cost of living down and then one on the dynamics that drive the cost of living up. 

Another reason for separating forces into two groups of enablers and inhibitors is to ensure that the group is putting sufficient attention not only on those that make things worse but also on those factors that make things better before merging them into loops. The tendency had been for groups doing the mapping to focus on what was not working, what was making things worse, giving too little attention to the things that stabilized the system or could even make things better. It is hoped that focusing on enablers and inhibitors separately gets groups to put significant attention looking for those "forces" or phenomena that aren't thought about in the first place, particularly on the enabler side of the equation. I believe that this also should have been made more explicit earlier in the course. 

So the group has various collections of factors organized into different themes bringing up the image of a puzzle party, though a closer analogy would be if instead of puzzle pieces each person brought their own photos of their particular perspective to create one common collage. Now it is a matter of putting them all together.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Finding More Pathways for Vehicles of Change

This blog post is going to be a continuation of the last, adding more online resources to the New Community Paradigms Wiki and again provide associated locations on the NCP Wiki Map.

Because New Community Paradigms doesn’t configure community governance functions in the same manner as traditional hierarchical, largely in separate silos, top-down command structures many of its approaches are means or process oriented rather than goal oriented.

One example is Community Management and Technology, the map of which displays a number of different approaches to addressing social problems. Among these are Community Tech Tools map.

Community Tool Box is a free, online resource offering thousands of pages of tips and tools for taking action in communities to those working to build healthier communities and bring about social change. Over 300 educational modules and other free tools for community assessment, planning, intervention, evaluation, advocacy, and other aspects of community practice.

Poplus is about sharing code so that every organization using digital technologies to hold governments to account, challenging corruption, and demand the right to transparency doesn’t have to write their software from scratch

Another pathway is Systems Thinking Approaches, the map of which tied directly to Systems Thinking but bridges to Community Management and Technology through Systems Thinking Theories, Methods and Tools Table which is seen as being related in turn to Change Management and Processes, a bridge, as reflected in the narrative section to the left between Community Change Agencies, Systems Thinking, Change Management and Technology and Asset Based Community Development.

A new resource under the Systems Thinking Online Training, Books, and Methods section is the updated Beyond Connecting the Dots (Now free and downloadable Mac and Windows)

Beyond Connecting the Dots is a new kind of book on Systems Thinking and Modeling. Rather than being constrained by the printed page, it runs digitally on your computer or your tablet. Because of this, it can provide you an exciting experience that goes beyond the printed word. The models in the book are truly interactive and you can directly experiment with them within the book as you read about them.

Online Version:
User Name: reader
Password: feedback

Community Arts has been featured before, its map connecting to Soul of the Community. Storytelling and Social Change: A Strategy Guide | Working Narratives with communities to tell great stories that inspire, activate and enliven our democracy by drawing on participants’ personal experiences and local cultures. By telling stories—whether in the form of performance, radio, video, or other media—communities build power, envision new democratic possibilities, and change culture and policy. Their work is located at the intersection of arts, technology, and social change.

Design Thinking was also connected with Collective Impact as reflected on the map. A new resource is Design Impact, a non-profit social innovation firm made up of designers, community development practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and educators. Their mission is to: • INCUBATE projects that transform communities, • EQUIP leaders with social innovation tools, and • ADVANCE methods of creative community change.

Transparency and Open Data in Governance are seen as a bridge from Governance linking particularly to National and State Movements, to Community Management and Technology linking to Maplight. The recent elections arguably make this all the more important.

Open Government Partnership is a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. In the spirit of multi-stakeholder collaboration, OGP is overseen by a Steering Committee including representatives of governments and civil society organizations. This version of the Advancing Open and Citizen-Centered Government |, however, is an archived historical material from the Obama administration that will not longer be updated. The Trump administration version will be linked to once it is made available.

In the third Open Government National Action Plan, the Administration both broadens and deepens efforts to help government become more open and more citizen-centered. The plan includes new and impactful steps the Administration is taking to openly and collaboratively deliver government services and to support open government efforts across the country. These efforts prioritize a citizen-centric approach to government, including improved access to publicly available data to provide everyday Americans with the knowledge and tools necessary to make informed decisions.

Data Journalism and Community Information is seen as being associated Civil Society within the map while being related to Transparency and Open Data in Government in Governance.

Doubtful News’ “Beyond Doubtful” list of no-go-to sources | Doubtful News is the latest new resource.

Doubtful News’ “Beyond Doubtful” list of no-go-to sources The purpose of Doubtful News is to expose questionable claims in stories you find on the internet. Mostly we deal with major news outlets because those are the stories that people will search on to find additional information. We get those searchers who then can see some science-based, rational takes on paranormal, anomalies and alternative subjects in the news.

The final addition is Data Sources also under Community Management and Technology under the map. The Overview | National Equity Atlas is an introduction. More is expected to be rolled out related to this new and expanding resource in the future.

The National Equity Atlas is a living resource, and our team is working to add new data and functionality to this site and produce new equity analyses that inform action. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Finding Pathways for Vehicles of Change

This blog post is going to break from the current Systems Practice focus (most recent post first) of the last two blog posts to update the newest resource additions to the New Community Paradigm (NCP) Wiki. This time though it will also tie them to a location on the recently unveiled Kumu based NCP Wiki Map, that was rolled out over four blog posts and which now has a home on both the NCP blog and wiki. If this is the first time with the NCP Wiki Map then there is a tour which provides a general explanation

The NCP Wiki map seeks to develop connections or bridges across sectors. All of the updates in this post are part of or are in some way connected to the Places map but can be followed to Healthy Communities or to Community Ecology

It is the resources, available online, found in the New Community Paradigm (NCP) Wiki that are the vehicles for change. The NCP Wiki Map connotes possible paths that could be taken. The posts of this blog are but one rationale or mental model for taken a particular path or using the suggested vehicles, one among many possible. 

The State of Placemaking 2016, brought more than 450 dedicated public space practitioners, and policymakers to chart the future of the placemaking movement structured around ten major issues that converge in public space,  referred to as “transformative agendas.” Placemaking, as a determining aspect of Places, can be seen as being most comprehensively defined by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS).  

In the NCP Wiki Places map, the circled Project for Public Spaces is seen as arising from Places and being related to the more general Community Places. (double clicking a circled element opens up wiki page, clicking “On Kumu Wiki Map” at top of a wiki page opens up the map). It is the wiki page Community Places that contains the blog posts, near the bottom of the page, seeking to define the developing NCP mental model for placemaking.

Place as Social and Economic Engine was one of the first wiki bridge pages and an early basis for developing a mental model for NCP as defined by blog posts listed at the bottom of the wiki page. It was so named, again as an extension of the correction to the same erroneous presumption underlying placemaking, that the strata of the geographic community below the businesses, city hall politics and those residents connected with city hall were of secondary value. While in truth, it is the created physical attributes of a place that are the dynamic foundation or engine of the community’s social and economic generation.

Place as Social and Economic Engine is the home for Strong Towns, who introduced the newest addition VERDUNITY, a team of civil engineers, planners, and sustainability specialists with expertise in land use planning and zoning, municipal finance, transportation planning and design, stormwater management and green infrastructure implementation, and urban design and placemaking. They started VERDUNITY  because they realized that elaborate, expensive infrastructure projects were making things more economically fragile and unsustainable. This was a disruption in their way of thinking, of their mental models. They are now working on changing other people’s mental models of how they think about the way we have been planning and building our cities and neighborhoods. More will be said about VERDUNITY in a future post.

Place as Social and Economic Engine on the NCP Wiki Map is seen as a bridge between Place and Economics (access between Places and Economics via a link is in the narrative section to the left). 

The newest addition to Planning the Urban Landscape is New Urban Mechanics, a network of civic innovation offices that explore how new technology, designs, and policies can strengthen the partnership between residents and government and significantly improve opportunity and experiences for all. It could have arguably been put under Community Change Agencies but personal choice and only personal was that these programs were more closely related to the existing underlying physical, placemaking, and political infrastructure of a community. The related blog posts, again listed at the bottom of the wiki page, provide some perspectives on a past effort in Los Angeles history to redefine the larger urban landscape. 

Planning the Urban Landscape approaches Places from a broader perspective looking not from the build up of smaller changes over time but the accumulation of those changes overall. It is seen as a bridge between Places and Community Ecology

Under the wiki page Healthy Cities is the recent addition of Bridging Health & Community, an extension of  the previously listed Creating Health Collaborative which aims to transform how we approach health so that it goes beyond institutional healthcare and public health to include fostering community agency, strengthening the field of practice that bridges those in the health sector and those who foster community agency helping to establish the critical link between a community's ability to make purposeful choices and its health. Being able to measure differences in life expectancy by income across areas and then to identify strategies to improve health outcomes for low-income Americans would be a useful ability. Health Inequality Project uses big data to help accomplish this.

The bridge from Places to Healthy Cities, under the Healthy Communities map, is Planning for Healthy Communities. It could also be an element in the Pathways to Healthy Communities map and the Art and Healthy Communities map. Two specially constructed maps that put together a path that incorporated elements that are often placed in silos and considered distinct and separate. 

Taking a higher altitude perspective, the Wiki Bridges Map connects all the New Community Paradigm sectors, including Places, Healthy Communities, and Community Ecology, together. 

A closer look at the pathway for Places indicates that at under the current New Community Paradigm configuration, Healthy Communities and Places are well integrated together but Community Ecology is somewhat isolated. 

Could Bridging Health & Community and Creating Health Collaborative under Healthy Cities be integrated with New Urban Mechanics under Planning the Urban Landscape and extended from Places to Community Ecology integrating the two together more closely?

There are also other deeper pathways that could utilize the online resources found in the NCP Wiki. Under Project for Public Places (click the URL or double click the circled element to open the wiki page) is Agenda Spotlight: Placemaking and Health - Project for Public Spaces.

There is growing evidence showing that place impacts people’s health on multiple scales. From obesity and chronic disease to depression, social isolation, and increased exposure to environmental toxins and pollutants, the world faces very different health challenges today than it has in the past, and many of these challenges are directly related to how our public spaces are designed and operated.

It could be an important component of the Pathways to Healthy Communities map and naturally be expanded to be encompassed by Community Ecology. How it is used could be determined in a number of different ways depending upon the needs of a particular community. 

It is believed though it has not been adequately examined that finding specific potential pathways for the utilization of online resources will greatly help in the development of new community paradigms. 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Story behind the Systems Practice Challenge

The last post started the Acumen sponsored Systemic Practice course connecting it back to the posts on the previously completed Financial Modeling for the Social Sector course. In these posts, systems thinking will take the lead.

The final post in the Financial Modeling series ended with developing an abstract financial model for the very real purpose of feeding the homeless. We reached a particularly abstract juncture as the focus was primarily on a still unrealized future.  

This post will take another look back, again quoting the systems thinking mantra for this blog, “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.” or a longer version “Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” 

One reason models are wrong is they often don’t reflect continually changing on the ground or granular reality. Things in real life change, an RV that was to be donated for food delivery was used instead as a residence for two pregnant homeless women. Models are also wrong because they never fully reflect the entire set of systems involved. One system not examined until the end was the political one, or political reality. 

In January 2016, the mayor of Portland established a“safe sleeping” policy meaning that homeless, sleeping in a doorway, would not be woken up by authorities to be moved to another location. This has since been rescinded. The mayor had major sweeps done around town with 72 hours notice, expecting everyone to pack up and move on but without giving options where to go and sometimes taking everything they had. The supporting advocacy groups were extremely busy trying to find housing for hundreds of people or at least some place for them to pitch their tents and be safe.

Practical on the street, as well as the economic and empirical realities of the Financial Modeling course put a damper on unrealizable idealism and helped to add a focused, disciplined financial perspective. A general goal of systems thinking is to avoid so-called unintended consequences of the invariably bad type. Doing good, real good is not easy. We started though with a model and ended up with, while still wrong, a better model.

Striving towards economic growth and equity, through democratic processes such as participatory budgeting, still requires better economic understanding and a means of budgetary discipline. When Seattle youth voted through participatory budgeting to spend $300,000 out of a $700,000 budget, on programs to address homelessness, how closely was the manner in which the money was spent examined?

The term “Last Mile” used in the title of the project came from the public transportation sector concept that it is easier to get a thousand people from point A (Station) to point B  (Station) and back again than it is to get that same thousand people from point B to point B1, B2, B3, and so on for each individual destination. People may be willing to ride a bullet train or light rail but don’t because they can’t cover that last mile to their destination. 

Similarly, the unsheltered homeless often cannot cover the last mile to get to the food so the intention is to cover it for them but the difficulty of doing so is comparable to that of the public transportation challenge because of multiple changing sources and targets, a version of the Traveling Salesman Problem.  Perhaps invoking the use of apps for finding the most efficient routes. 

Creating a sustainable and scalable enterprise to feed unsheltered homeless proved itself to be embroiled in a number of complex operational systems, food distribution, transportation, and others. Multiple social systems were also operating, though often not meshing together well, a system (weak social community) of homelessness within the community, a system of economics creating homelessness (perhaps as an unintended consequence but nonetheless), an institutional system to address different detrimental aspects of homelessness, and systems of existence among the homeless (social complex) in interacting with those community and institutional systems. 

The specific challenge was delivering food to those that were not only without means of sustainable nutrition but also without minimally proper, decent shelter of any type. There is an institutional system for food provision for those less fortunate, a primary source of which is systemic food wastage, a problem in its own right. One early idea was to develop apps like Cerplus, OkCupid, Leftover Swap and Spoiler Alert, which was built by MIT graduate students, to address food distribution challenges.

“Food waste happens not because businesses intend to waste the food but because they’re often disconnected from one another and lack a real-time solution,” says Ricky Ashenfelter, co-founder, and CEO of Spoiler Alert.

"It takes so much planning," said Al Brislain, CEO of Feeding America San Diego. "All the routes, all the-- you know, making sure the temperature is right, making sure that the food is still nutritious and fresh.”

Tax legislation in 2016 allowed business to benefit by getting tax deductions for donating food thereby hopefully preventing food waste. Inefficient solutions do little though to address the underlying causes of massive food wastage in the food and service industry which is said to happen because of consumer demand for price competition, depending upon massive overproduction to remain profitable.  Most programs do nothing to address this. Instead, they help to maintain overproduction through tax incentives created specifically to make surplus supermarkets viable. This food does not, however, readily reach the homeless.

Although the community food distribution system is available to the homeless, it is not necessarily accessible by them. Local pantries might bend over backward for a person with no address. 

“But that homeless person has to figure out a way to get the groceries back to camp or shelter and the street person is limited to what he can carry on a daily basis. It is very limited what kind of healthy ‘walking food’ the pantries carry”. - Jo

Besides a lack of choices, there is an inability to keep food fresh once it is distributed because it is given in quantities too large to be used in a timely enough manner. 

“They don't have much choice in food so they end up with five loaves of bread that go bad before they can use it.” - Jo

Overall, the most financially effective and sustainable remedy to address homelessness is providing homes rather than continually providing services which while necessary in the short run do not make a significant enough of an impact to bring about the needed change in the long run. The last post cited the study coming out of Calhoun County, Michigan

The most ironic obstacle to implementing the fundamental solution was the community’s very success in providing temporary shelters and supports.”

However, while building homes may be one of the best remedies for homelessness, lack of a home is not, it was proposed, the primary etiology of the detrimental and acute afflictions of homelessness. It is a lack of community, separation from deeply structured community or social relationship network that can be defined as civil society. 

Such a social structure can be taken for granted by most of us because we can make decisions to bypass such relationships but remain, even if only subconsciously, confident that they will be available if we need them. Including those community relationships that we forge through our economic transactions. While this does not encompass the whole truth of homelessness and as a model is wrong, it might provide an important insight.

While it is obviously good that a beneficial social effort is sustainable that does not lessen any immediate needs. The question of scaling to assist more people does not make current local efforts to meet such needs unhelpful. The financial model helped to prevent wasting resources on enterprises if unviable and to expand them if viable.

Extending services to help different organizations find people that might be helped further, moving individuals from the streets and camps to supportive, permanent housing options and back into the community was considered. A larger question then was whether this more focused approach would make a long-term difference for only some of the homeless or would a far less focused approach help more people if only temporarily.

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