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, November 6, 2017

Some Complex Questions for ABCD about Carrying Capacity

In the accompanying NCP post, Cormac Russell’s post on Nurturing the Carrying Capacity of Communities is credited with being an inspiration and here a primary source for attempting to bridge ABCD with dynamic complexity. One premise for this is that communities of all types are dynamic complex systems, another is the concept of carrying capacity which refers to a system's resilience and receptivity before it begins to degrade or the equilibrium population or the number of members a system can support, particularly as it can be applied to communities. The previous post is from more of a complex dynamics perspective while this one will be based more on questions asked of Asset Based Community Development.

Cormac has said before that community should be thought of as a verb rather than as a noun but for this purpose, we need to categorize types. Most geographically placed, politically defined by government type communities such as cities or towns are usually composed of a number of diverse socially and often demographically defined place-based communities, neighborhoods, of differing levels of influence. These neighborhoods have experienced years of working with different public and private institutional agencies which have provided services of one kind or another under the auspices of a governmentally defined entity but not at equal levels. In addition to these but not necessarily separate are other types of community that can extend beyond geographic boundaries. From here on, when speaking of communities, it means the later or neighborhoods and smaller social based communities. 

The carrying capacity of a local community depends upon good stewardship of that community’s welfare which ideally requires nurturing at three levels with correct sequencing that discovers the underpinning capacities and which functions in a way that does not harm the social capital of the community. The result of good stewardship in times of crisis should be sufficiency and abundance, not scarcity and abandonment.

There are things for which communities have adequate carrying capacity to do best on their own. Outside agencies then should ideally facilitate such activities so that the carrying capacity of the community goes as far as possible. Instead, communities are often asked to scale these efforts to extend them beyond the community's boundaries. 

The warning that “Scale is Important but Who’s Scale Are We Talking About?” so as not to scale or grow beyond a community's own carrying capacity for the benefit of outside agencies becomes especially relevant as the community's carrying capacity and established predictable processes (the way it works) will likely be diminished and won't work the same way elsewhere. 

As suggested in the last post, complex dynamics can study a system from a boat on a river level, differential equation, or from an airplane level, iterated logistic map. One aspect of the iterated logistic function noted by the complex dynamics course is that chaos is not determined by a change in population nor in the annihilation (carrying capacity) number nor as a factor of how close the population is to the annihilation number but by the rate of growth. More precisely the rate of growth of a population system at a high enough level that is both bounded and subject to sensitivity to initial conditions.

A call for needing to remove barriers seems though to argue against a community having sufficient carrying capacity on is own taking us to the next level. That level which is beyond the carrying capacity of what communities can do on their own but could do perhaps with some help from outside institutions.  Part of the carrying capacity then has to come from outside the community but the agencies, working on behalf of those responsible for this, may be competing for resources which are then being distributed to competing communities. 

Outside agencies, institutional or otherwise, should then seek to be in a right relationship with these smaller social, demographic, cultural communities. However, it has been many of these very same agencies who have failed, are still failing and are now looking to systematize their failure as the new normal. The role of ABCD is separate from the provision of services and not meant to save institutional systems money and an imposed scaling from a base of community carrying capacity has been demonstrated to be unwise. Outside agencies though have different pressures from budgetary committees and such for imposing scaling on their efforts. These pressures not only can’t be discounted, they should be optimized to provide the best possible service with limited resources to the greatest number. There have been some successes in these partnerships, particularly with healthcare but while empirically verifiable as to what works, are theoretically less clear to me as to how they work.

There are then those things that communities need to have done for them by outside agencies.  They do not have the carrying capacity to do it on their own even with help or that help is never offered so that the agency maintains control. Agencies should seek to do those things in as transparent and accountable a manner as possible but they very often don’t. 

The power relationships of communities with outside institutional agencies has taken a new turn with agencies claiming that service delivery is neither sustainable nor ironically empowering. Austerity, defined by the agencies, means the communities have fewer outside resources available so have to carry more of the responsibility, including taking over care of those previously highly service dependent, a form of harvesting of the community's carrying capacity. The added incongruity is that these are the same agencies that eroded the carrying capacity of communities for decades, and are failing to do enough now to provide communities with the necessary support to build back up the needed carrying capacity. 

ABCD is based on the simple logic that communities can’t know what external supports they need until they first know what internal capacities or what social capital they have in defining their carrying capacity. A question for many communities then is whether they are even asking the question? ABCD seeks to change this by committing to re-seeding associational life at a hyper-local level (i.e. street level?). ABCD is about the strengthening of social capital within a community so as to save people from a life of institutionalization by creating community alternative to the (institutional) systems world.  The reach of ABCD though is arguably restricted by Dunbar's Number.

What leverage then is afforded to local communities or even those working in support of local communities to ensure that this is done properly? Even if this were accomplished, providing the proportionate support that does not displace or diminish local community power is a difficult balancing act with the best of intentions. We are beginning to attain the level of cities at this point and cities, as Professor Geoffrey West has asserted, naturally scale in terms of economies at a sub-linear rate in a sigmoidal curve for infrastructure having an analog to biology but scale at a superlinear fashion with socio-economic network factors  with each at a rate of about 15% in savings for the former and in growth for the later though not through the equitable distribution of benefits. Detriments are paid for in the form of socio-economic entropy which is also not equitably distributed. The catch is that the entire system is destined to collapse from the stress being generated without a major intervention or transformation of some type. These ideas are expanded upon here. It should be noted here that even though we have been using logistical equations to explain certain phenomena they are still considered qualitative explanations in the sense of being caricatures and not deeper quantitive analysis. 

Agency interactions or what Cormac refers to as conversations, unfortunately, start and remain stuck on the third level, and without proper investment in community building they will remain there but there is little incentive to make that extended investment.  At the third level, the system being generated becomes entrenched leading to a form of top-down service delivery engendering an erosion of social capital and a high level of dependence on external resources that are now disappearing. The system is persistent and resilient even while failing to address the needs of its supposed beneficiaries. 

Many of the institutional agencies operate from a reductionistic top-down management framework,  segmenting members by age and condition, narrowing their foci to create a siloed management approaches,  youth agencies working only with the young, older people’s services working with only seniors; disability services serving only the disabled treating, as Cormac says, treating the community like a tangerine, emphasizing efficiency, through financial metrics, as equal or more important than effectiveness. 

Inadvertently, which is another way of saying with the unintended consequence of, having people being redefined or commodified as service users and patients and thereby defined out of community resulting in the consequent depletion of carrying capacity by the community that was supposedly being helped. Saying inadvertently is giving the benefit of the doubt for the initial intention and could imply responsibility on both sides of the issues. The continued maintenance or manipulation of institutional systems for the benefit of some at the cost of others is a different matter. 

This raises the question though whether ABCD actually addresses issues between different competing communities through democratic principles or simply focuses through relational consensus on the maximum carrying capacity of each community with special attention towards challenged ones? My question is who specifically is the "We" whom Cormac speaks of that needs to learn from communities what they can do and care enough about to do without outside help. Who is the “We” that not only helps communities determine what they can do with some support, and only then helps determine what external resources are needed but also helps in negotiating for them or enhances the carrying capacity of the community to do such on their own? 

It isn't the communities themselves, at least not initially and it is doubtful that it is the institutional agencies so there is presumedly a third sector or movement outside of these communities that is being appealed to beyond the already converted and serving and the interested, morally supporting but uninvolved readers. Is this unformed but more complex network of relationships addressed or is it left to other efforts such as Participatory Budgeting, Placemaking or other forms of direct democratic governance of community?

Cormac sees all of this as causing further atomisation (Irish) to people’s sense of community in what I interpreted as ending up being as a system of disorganized complexity. I am going to suggest though that ABCD also potentially features an atomization (USA) of a community but to the level of independent agents connecting in a complex fashion though in a system of organized complexity as defined by both Jane Jacobs and Warren Weaver. ABCD then becomes a necessary and even primary component of New Community Paradigms but not necessarily a sufficient one. Another bridge to be explored is how Asset Based Community Development could be utilized as a means of Disruptive Innovation. 

Bridging ABCD and Dynamic Complexity

This post and the next are going to attempt to bridge dynamic complex systems and Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). One can start with the former in this post or one can start with the later with this post.

There might seem a sizable distance to span as understanding dynamic complex systems can be rather abstract and conceptual at a system-wide level while ABCD seeks practical real impact on the ground and in the streets at a neighborhood level. It is believed though that transversing this span will help with understanding both, well at least my understanding. ABCD has been explored in the past, though I will again assert that I have limited understanding, and that I am still trying to improve my understanding of it.

The specific link was inspired by a term that Cormac Russell utilized in his post, Nurturing the Carrying Capacity of Communities. The concept of “carrying or bearing capacity” refers to a system's resilience and receptivity before it begins to degrade. This term was also used in the Introduction to Dynamical Systems and Chaos course, that I recently completed, in understanding changes in populations over time.  Communities, like populations, can be said to have a carrying capacity which is not unlimited. Communities, however, are defined and differentiated by more than elements and number and we have a more personal interest that they should not be exploited.

The two previous posts provided some thoughts and more thoughts on dynamic complex systems generally with a bit more on systems thinking, complexity, chaos and new community paradigms all from the perspective of the logistic equation as an iterated function. 

Dynamic complexity takes a mathematical perspective which tends to make it abstract and a disconnect with ABCD which has a  preference for stories over data. In a previous post, the  logistic equation as a means of understanding populations was considered as an iterative function in the form

f(p) = rp(1-p/a) 

It needs to be said again that these posts aren’t intended to be a substitute for the course, merely an attempt to apply some lessons learned to other areas and in doing so learn more. Sometimes this means returning to a previous post to make updates to communicate newly attained and relatively better understanding which was done with including this version of the logistic equation. The course provides far better explanations, often repeated in far greater detail. This post only hopes to give a sense of the concepts and perhaps encourage taking the course.

This form of the equation can be seen to be similar to the logistic differential equation below.

dp/dt = rp(1-p/k) 

Both of these equations are deterministic giving rise though to very different ranges of possible behaviors that can be discerned. P is again population such as some animal. How fast the population grows still depends on the current population. The r remains a measure of the growth rate, when the growth rate is positive the population is increasing so the larger r, the larger the population will be. 

The carrying capacity in a  differential logistic equation is the parameter (1-p/k).  The quantity k is in a sense the equilibrium population or the number of creatures a system can support. With the previously considered iterated Logistic function, it was the annihilation parameter or (1-p/a). 

Although the carrying capacity and annihilation parameter appear mathematically in the same form in the equation, they have different meanings doing different things as defined by the left side of each of the equations. They can be applied to the exact same reality yet giving very different perspectives. Both are limited but both are useful.  The concept of carrying capacity seems for me more intuitively understandable as opposed to the annihilation population.

The most noticeable difference between the two equations is on the left side of the equations.  The dp/dt on the left side of the differential equation describes the function p in terms of its rate of change.

For differential equations, the solution is population as a function of time, both time and population are continuous. The curve of the function changes continuously, increasing smoothly, passing through all intermediate values defined at all times. Knowing the rate of change of p means knowing what p is, population growth depends on the population value. The derivative is a function of only the p-value and any given p-value has only one derivative associated with it. 

The logistic equation in the form of the iterated function also describes population growth, but f(p) is the population at the next time cycle, given the population p this year determines next year p resulting from iterating this function in a series of population values. For iterated functions, the solution is a time series plot or map with the value of the population moving in jumps past any intermediate values connecting the dots, sliding past all values with an initial value at time 0, then by time 1,  time 2, etc.

This means that cycles or periodic orbits of different numbers and chaos or aperiodic behavior subject to sensitivity to initial conditions are not possible for a differential equation. With the differential equation, there are then only two fixed points, one an unstable fixed point at zero, as a  repeller pushing away towards the other fixed point at k or the carrying capacity.

The carrying capacity or k  is then a stable fixed point or an attractor.  Any population number between zero and k the carrying capacity gets pulled toward k, anything larger than k also gets pulled decreasing until reaching k. The range of real-world behaviors for one-dimensional differential equations is limited then to increasing to a fixed point or decreasing to a fixed point. A population that is a little larger than zero or less than a k of 100 will increase up to 100. If that population is larger than 100 then the growth rate will be negative and the population decreases.  

The iterated function is capable of producing both periodic orbits and chaos and while not all iterated functions will reveal chaos, iterated functions can, therefore, display a much richer array of behaviors because determinism doesn't forbid them.

Chaos, it should be remembered, is the technical term for what is popularly known as the butterfly effect in which the flap of a wing produces a hurricane somewhere. This is not actually true. The totality of a system with a butterfly flapping its wings could end up at a substantially different outcome than a system without the butterfly but it is impossible to say whether the butterfly created or stopped the formation of the hurricane and where it be formed. 

Imagine exploring with a boat an unknown but long and exceedingly winding river on which numerous bends in the river hide what is ahead.  One might have an idea of the general shape of the river but more specific knowledge of what lay ahead would be limited. It would still be necessary to closely navigate the waters one was sailing for rocks or to obtain resources from the shore but major changes in the landscape, such as giant waterfalls or whirlpools would not be apparent until one came upon them. 

An airplane flying the same basic route would not be able to gather any detailed information about the river, except general shape, or about the fauna and flora but it could notice larger aspects of the landscape, useful information far ahead that could prove helpful to the boat. 

There was a conjectural attempt made to apply this thinking to some NCP elements used in a Causal Loop Diagram involving Community Advocacy. Systems thinking can be quite good at making elements that can impact a system but which are separated by time or causal steps of more than one or two degrees more apparent. The course on dynamic complexity provided another perspective though in which a deterministic system could potentially result in essentially stochastic or random behavior without outside intervention, not necessarily chaotic but unexpected based on past behavior. While any one of the connections would be highly unlikely to produce this effect, multiple interactions of numerous unique elements over time potentially could. This supposes that the metrics that are often used in measuring systems are in truth not particularly precise, often being more on the level of ordinal numbers, and that through the finer tuned interaction over time of actual true values could have different and surprisingly unpredictable results or unintended consequences. It doesn’t have to produce a hurricane merely take an unexpected turn. How we navigate our world depends on both the interaction of current events and our best attempts at predicting how the future will unfold. Still, it can be readily recognized how abstract and disconnected from everyday reality the perspective being presented here can be.

An ABCD approach would likely be to go to live in a village along the river and learn from the stories of the people. One question could then be whether the village both needed and wanted help or should be left alone but we’ll leave that for next post. 

The limitation of this analogy, from the complex dynamics perspective, is that distantly future events on the river of time can only be predicted through model again echoing the George Box aphorism,  “All models are wrong, some models are useful” now further constrained by the potential unpredictability of internal dynamics. The limitation with ABCD is that the river can change it flows towards a village or community in unexpected ways.

The yet still strong affinity and resulting confidence with the mathematics of complexity is admittedly based on a personal bias but not necessarily subject to being overly impressed with numbers per se but with the mathematical relations that have been shown to be rooted in the fabric of reality. ABCD also endeavors to reach the fabric of reality of communities, saying subjectively has an arguably negative connotation, which would be misapplied. Instead, it should be recognized as an essential part of the whole truth of understanding communities. The next post will endeavor to obtain a better understanding of ABCD.

Past Posts