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.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Learning to Apply a Systems Practice to the Wicked Problem of Homelessness

This is the beginning of another online course sponsored by Acumen and another course in collaboration with Jo Foraker with whom I worked with on the Modeling the Last Mile to Feed the Homeless series. In that course, the focus was on financial modeling but systems thinking modeling was always included underneath near the surface. Again, only a flavor of the course is going to be provided here and not the course itself. Instead, the focus, as before, will be more on how the course connects with new community paradigms.

This course is more directly on Systems Practice and is being taught by Rob Ricigliano of Omidyar Group’s Systems & Complexity Team. It appears that it will seek a more pragmatic or on-the-ground application of systems thinking than did the previously taken systems thinking certification course. One new aspect will be how to launch a team. This course will also be using the often featured Kumu relational mapping tool. Here is a perspective on Kumu by Rob Ricigliano.

The course focuses on solving what it calls groundhog day, whack-a-mole and opposite day problems, a little imagination will paint a picture. Another more operationally viable term is "wicked problem". The trouble for those trying to communicate this reality to others is that this reality can be confusing, frustrating and messy. The course sees systems thinking as a necessary mindset in addressing this reality by providing clarity and insights into points of leverage within such systems at which the greatest impact with modest force is possible. It makes it possible to enhance an organization’s adaptability to changing environments. Making it more aware of causal ripple effects, those instances of cause and effect which are separate in time and space from the more ostensibly obvious events within our immediate reality. 

Homelessness is seen as a wicked problem, a complex problem involving large scale system inputs and outcomes having very close, personal and detrimental impact on those afflicted by it. It will arguably require then a wide perspective to find viable solutions. 

In particular with the issue of homelessness in which communities have spent a large amount of money on shelters in many large cities yet did not reduce the overall number of people living on the streets within those cities. 

The course explores why. With the homeless shelter question, the suggested answer is “Shelters were never meant to provide a path to sustainable living.” Beyond that, no one program can address all of the underlying challenges facing our communities. They are all interconnected and interwoven. It is a complex perspective on reality as opposed to an imposed complicated top-down perspective. 

One positive example cited by the course and in the past by this blog, is the Calhoun County, Michigan study which used systems thinking to address homelessness. They looked at the “whole system” under which the incentive for funders and providers had been to provide quick fixes, addressing the immediate problem, rather than sustained change. They used systems thinking to determine where they could effectively intervene with higher level approaches such as housing first. This worked even when unemployment in the area was rising.
  1. Setting goals
  2. Good Systems Analysis
  3. Finding Opportunities for Leverage
  4. Preparing to Learn and Adapt Effectively
The course considers how to do a systems analysis through a dynamic systems map of key forces affecting the system under study. How to identify opportunities for impact or leverage points within that system to create the desired change. How do we get started on the process of learning and adapting so that if we manage to do that very well in the context of the complex system (meaning constantly shifting) we are working in we are able to adapt?
  1. Mindset for how the world works and how to create change.
  2. A set of tools and processes as to how to actually design and implement actions for change.
Rob then goes into what they mean by a system or what makes a system, differentiating it from more tangible physical systems such as an automobile or the healthcare system. Complex social systems produce results or consequences such as homelessness or other social ills to use his examples. This type of system is made up of complex forces that affect each other and more importantly for one’s efforts the issue with which you are concerned. For example, the “things” that produce homelessness are likely diverse but not isolated, they are interrelated in a manner that I would deem organic and intrinsic. These relationships between the things or factors contributing to homelessness can interact in unpredictable ways. 

So a system has discrete and diverse components or elements that are interdependent and interact in complex ways that dynamically change over time. This makes predictability more difficult, not impossible but the ability is far more constrained as one needs to constantly reassess one's systems analysis and the time frame for an accurate prediction can be shortened. 

The Omidyar Group’s take on systems thinking consists of three key components. It is a mindset. A way of thinking about how the world works and how to work with that messy world to promote desired outcomes. It is a set of tools to do analysis and develop a strategy. It is a particular set of processes which demands collective intelligence and sense-making resulting in collective action. This requires certain specific processes, such as participatory deliberations and dialogue.

The course recognizes that there are certain problems that are not solvable by directly addressing the apparent symptoms of the problem. With homelessness, it was the notion that we build shelters but that didn't actually solve the problem. It may have gotten certain people off of the streets but they were replaced and increased by more people. It can be necessary to look at the entire system to determine what it is about the system that is producing that and other negative outcomes. The conundrum is that certain acute challenges cannot be ignored until a complete and permanent solution to the chronic problem is found.

The feeding of the unsheltered, isolated homeless (even in homeless camps there is still isolation) is one such challenge. Those that can’t find occupancy in the shelters can also find themselves isolated from the community's food systems.  The direct approach to the problem, getting food and taking it to the camps is already known to be a tremendous logistical challenge. The question is how to create a system, an enterprise that works most effectively and efficiently in the existing larger systems and that can also, hopefully, begin to change that larger system to not only stop whatever activities it is doing to create the problems but to also directly work on the larger system issues to resolve them.
  1. The nature of the environment one is working in.
  2. The nature of the goal you have set for yourself.
  3. One’s ability to implement this type of approach.
Rob then goes into three criteria for determining whether a systems approach should be applied. First is the nature of the environment one is working dynamic and constantly changing? Have supposedly obvious approaches been tried before and failed? Can change be overwhelming, not just for oneself but especially for those one is trying to assist? Even solutions that may work in one case don’t work in another. 

The second is the nature of the goal that one is striving to accomplish. This one is more problematic. Rob speaks of relief efforts to feed a specific group of people for a specific period of time or to house them so that they don’t die of exposure which can be seen as a relatively mechanical process. However, I don't believe the distinction is so apparent or that the Last Mile program truly fits into that configuration. The relationship between doing A to get B is not as deterministic in dealing with the unsheltered homeless as it can be with other forms of relief aid. 

Now it is true that finding ways to permanently house homeless individuals or better to prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place would be a higher point of leverage within the larger system. However, in focusing on the first approach of finding ways to permanently house the homeless, the status of those individuals in terms of health must also be considered and malnutrition and anemia will make helping them far more difficult. How all this will be addressed though will change from place to place. 

The third is what is happening with one’s self. Are you in an enabling environment, the ability, time and resources that allow you to step back and have the means and capability to think through the building of a strategy, say like taking this course then systems thinking is worth investing in. Rob warns, however, that it is not a magic solution. It does not make complex issues simple or worse yet if wrongly interpreted, simplistic. What it can do, from a new community paradigms perspective is make that complexity coherent. 

Past Posts