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, December 31, 2018

Every Systems Puzzle Tells a Story

In Systems Thinking, things or factors are dependent upon what is around them and can change over time.

Yoel Ben-Avraham, the team leader for our Jerusalem Vision Systems Practice project, provided the viewpoint of a 67-year-old Jewish man with a good sense of historical perspective. Yoel brought up the idea of ”targeting” and asked, ”Who's ’forces’ are we going to explore?” Though I initially agreed with the idea of ”targeting,” I came to realize that our use of the term was being misapplied.

People can sail to different ports by “targeting” their destination and using the existing knowledge of wind and currents to get them there. It is a matter of performance. However, somebody had to first study those winds and currents to understand how they would influence ships and write that down for others. It is then a matter of exploration and learning. Our mission at this point in the process was not to paint targets on the wall but rather examine the forces that lead to those “targets”. Systems Thinking, especially the early stages of Systems Practice is set in the explorer stage. The questions of "how to" would be dealt with separately, later in the course and would need to be even more so, after it.

We started to express some of the factors and influences or as the Systems Practice course termed it forces that affect the system. Not in an attempt to reconfigure the system, in this case, Jerusalem, into a desired state, or target certain factors to change into a shape we believed to be better but endeavoring to understand the forces that constitute the system in its present form purposely avoiding coming up with hypothetical enablers. We were seeking to understand what creates the forces which maintain the system in its current configuration without passing judgment on either side.

One should then, from an overall perspective, take a system in its totality so one side isn’t predetermined as being more important than another in the maintaining of that system. At the same time, both sides, all sides need to be understood from their own perspectives.

We would do this partially through the S.A.T. (Structural Attitudinal Transactional) analysis of factors which provides another lens on understanding the system, and its component causal loops, under inquiry. Examples and explanations of a general nature were provided in the previous post. We also needed, among others, the perspective of a 24-year-old Palestinian man trying to raise a family and recognize what he sees as reality or truth. Not to prove it right on its own but to recognize it as a force perhaps Attitudinal in nature and perhaps arising from Structural forces or influencing or causing Transactional forces. Unfortunately, we had to attempt to imagine it rather than actually obtaining it.

Within a current system, each factor would play the role of cause or effect and usually both but that was not being determined at this point. What was initially attempted was to determine whether a factor could be seen as enabling the system or inhibiting the system.

One of the primary issues though, in my experience, that Systems Thinking seeks to address is the tendency of people to only look at factors in immediate or near-immediate approximation. The Systems Practice course does not seem to emphasize this enough, at least in my opinion.

The cause-effect or causal links between factors then can be repeated in extended upstream-downstream relationships. Systems Practice seems to want to establish this prior to actual mapping which I have admitted is not something that I am adept at. Each upstream factor identified has to have at least one and perhaps more downstream factors related to it, it has to be upstream to something. It is the upstream cause to some downstream effect.

One could ask the question the other way. The test of downstream is whether it is the effect or result of something upstream. Choose a downstream effect and ask what are the upstream causes of it but don't stop there, ask what are the upstream causes of that, then again ask ”And?”.

In many instances, if one goes out far enough, one discovers that the connections circle back onto their origin. So factor A connects to factor B which connects to factor C which then connects back to factor A. People may be paying attention to A and B but not to C and therefore not understand why things are not improving since A increases B, not realizing that while B may also increase C, C decreases A. What we have then visually under Kumu is a loop, in this particular case a balancing loop as discussed in the Donella Meadows “Thinking in Systems” series.

There is now a causal loop that is persistent which means that every factor in the loop could be considered both an upstream cause and a downstream effect depending upon the designated state of the system.

Kumu refers to these causal linked factors as degrees and defaults to being able to extend three degrees or three causal steps though one can go out further connecting factors within different loops together. It is by getting past immediate or near-immediate causal relationships by which Systems Thinking can provide greater insight. Systems Practice does this through a collaboratively constructed vision.

Both upstream and downstream factors involve change through causal steps that are either positive in that it results in an increase or negative in that it results in a decrease of something. Whether that change is positive in a good sense or negative in a bad sense depends upon context. Loops are, however, more than just their factors, including their connections can result in emergent aspects within themselves and within the system overall.

This configures into what I think of as patterns of persistent causality. These loops or patterns of persistent causality can be thought of, to my mind, as system entities the same as factors also having an influence on the rest of the system in their own right beyond their component factors.

We want to then label factors with names that are neutral in terms of increase or decrease so that we can determine a direction based on the factors influencing them, so as to be able to discover emergent forces and what the course calls the deep structure of the system which is highly unlikely if one is stuck with a particular perspective from the start.

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 somewhat weaker for those with less experience in Systems Thinking because they don't extend their inquiries far enough or openly enough.

A philosophical argument can be made whether connections need to truly be a causal relationship with 100% correlated mathematical certainty or it if they could be highly but still qualitatively correlated. Systems Dynamics would lean, heavily, to the former, Systems Thinking would arguably allow for the later being more open to qualitative inquiry. The question is how strictly does one define causality. Is it only 100% proven correlation or do we explore first with less rigid criteria and then endeavor to prove with more stringent?

The course also organizes these factors into Themes, another partial lens. A theme is a collection of commonly related factors and forces. Themes do not necessarily have a causal connection between the factors making them up, they are part of a group for other reasons thought relevant to the system. They are often not quite yet Causal Loops. To be a loop, those forces and themes need to be organized into persistent feedback configurations. Causal steps, however, according to Donella Meadows, “Thinking in Systems” do not have to feedback to be a system. Causally linked thematic pathways then can connect different causal loops together in my view.

Kumu does not have a direct translation for Themes but it can visually represent Themes by classifying factors (and connections) by type or tags and assigning a particular color or size when defining the view for that systems map.

In the Systems Thinking Certification course, factors, from a more social perspective needed to persuade others, could be thought of like characters in a novel interacting with other characters with arrows showing causal connections and forming sub-plots through loops. The themes and causal loops together can form subplots which will form a plot and eventually a rich story when put together through a dynamic system map. Yeu Wen, the course catalyst for the Plastic Pollution Thailand project, suggested thinking of factors themes and as nouns and verbs in a sentence (well maybe adjectives, adverbs and nouns with connections as verbs). Rob Ricigliano, the course instructor, in one of the course’s videos, also said that we can think of the process in some ways as building a story, a deeper story that is inclusive of all.

We cannot fully tell the significance of a specific factor or idea until we see how it plays in the entire system map (story). I doubt that we can fully do it for all factors as individuals with, especially complex systems. From a Systems Thinking point of view though, the supposed facts on the ground, especially if they can be continuously debated, are not necessarily the most important factors. The different mental models held by different groups can be of even greater importance. Overcoming those mental models is perhaps the most significant impact Systems Practice can have.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Systems Thinking Iceberg Model helps with Understanding Systems Practice S.A.T. Analysis

So far we have dealt with Guiding Stars, Near Stars and Framing Questions as well as dealing with factors as either enabling or inhibiting in upstream/downstream patterns into different Themes of the system being explored. During this Jerusalem Vision project, a S.A.T. analysis, unique to Systems Practice was again conducted. Factors involved in cause/effect or upstream/downstream relationships can, according to the Systems Practice course be categorized as Structural, Transactional or Attitudinal.

It is a way of looking at a system so as to avoid focusing on only what is obvious and allowing for a deeper understanding of the system overall. By rigorously looking at all the cause and effect relationships, within a system, according to this set of categories, one has a better chance of illuminating the most important causal drivers in the system. This will be only a cursory explanation though, for a more complete one it will be necessary to take the course.

The course provides examples of the three categories of S.A.T. - Structural, Attitudinal or Transactional rather than definitions. The three, as presented by the course, can be seen as being distinct from each other.

There is though arguably an interrelationship between them that can be explored. This is based on a hypothesis that the Structural components or factors of a system help to determine Transactional factor patterns upon which both together Attitudinal factor perspectives are based which in turn support, oppose or acquiesce to those Structural components, which in turn, influence Transactional patterns.

This proposed interrelationship between the S.A.T. categories also suggests correspondence with another Systems Thinking meta-model, the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. I explored the potential for these ideas with the Kumu project Implications 101 of Systems Iceberg and Systems Practice S.A.T. (Forked).

The Kumu project is based on fundamental Systems Thinking principles in the construction of Causal Loop Diagrams. More specifically, on five examples, of a more general and abstract nature, developed by Gene Bellinger for use in his still-developing interactive learning platform And! It's All Connected. Gene conducted the Systems Thinking Certification course I took. The ”Forked” in the title means that I had permission to make a duplicate of his work and modify it for my own purposes. As I told the And! It's All Connected Facebook group, ”Without a firm foundation through Gene's original maps, I would not have the same degree of confidence”.

Using Gene’s work as a basis, I first extended upon his ideas by adding new loops and then created new perspective (view) on the issues using S.A.T. categorizations. Gene, it should be noted created an advanced Kumu view to define his design. Mine created for the S.A.T. analysis was far more simple but it did, it can be asserted, support and expand upon the ideas below.

According to the course, the Structural category of S.A.T. includes the physical, whether natural such as air quality or drought or the built environment, say housing stock or the transportation system but it also includes the non-physical such as the social environment in which people live; including political, social and economic institutions.

Different types of institutional infrastructure could be considered either physical or non-physical e.g., legal system, economic policy, labor unions, church associations. In many cases, there will be a combination of both physical and non-physical aspects. The physical court building in which the non-physical legal system is practiced. The examples provided by the course could be considered as formal structures, some significant. Systems can give rise to factors that can serve as the structural components within that system helping to define it despite a lack of formal recognition.

The structural category of S.A.T. can be related to the structural level in the Iceberg Model. Structures are built and or are maintained by individuals that they are established by, working transactionally in concert but they are something more than individuals and are capable of persisting beyond individuals.

There is a structural component arising from the interaction of factors and forces which if changed could potentially change the system but to be adequately effective would likely need to be seen as a structural replacement.

Factors, at the Structural level of either the S.A.T. model or Iceberg model, can be considered as stocks both physical, whether natural or built environment and non-physical following Donella Meadows’ definitions.

The Principle of Accumulation states that all dynamic behavior in the world occurs when flows accumulate in stocks. Stocks can be increased or decreased but not instantaneously, 

“a stock takes time to change, because flows take time to flow”.

”A stock, then, is the present memory of the history of changing flows within a system”. 

Transactional factors of the S.A.T. can be seen as combining into the events and patterns of the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. Events become patterns when they are repeated in a systematic enough manner that allows them to be forecasted or their cumulative effect influences the larger system. Transactional factors are set within the Structural framework(s) of a system and are constrained by it.

Transactional is the process of interactions but for me has a slightly different definition from that used by the Systems Practice course. The course seems to limit the definition to key people or the leaders at all levels as they deal with important social, political and economic issues whether they be essential negotiations, violence, problem-solving, influence, or leadership. Examples of key Transactional factors provided by the course include lobbying by human rights activists, the influence of a community elder, mediation by a member of Parliament, or extreme political rhetoric by a religious leader. I don’t see a reason to limit the definition to Grass-tops and not include Grass-root efforts even if they must often occur at a more aggregated level to make a noticeable impact.

What is implied but not made explicit, or at least I will assert that it should be, is that transactional factors involve at least a two-sided interaction though not always apparent. That the interaction must be iterated to become a pattern and that will invariably occur within, through or be supported by some Structural factor or factors.

Those Transactional factors unsupported by Structural factors will be far less sustainable than those that are and far less likely to reach a persistent pattern. It should be noted that an iterated persistent pattern does not mean repeated exact copies, patterns of transactional factors can be modified and systems can evolve.

A Transactional example of extreme political rhetoric could be effective not because it directly changed the structure of a system but because it influenced Attitudinal concerns of the populous which in turn brought changes to the Structural factors of the system though that would have to be through Transactional factors.

Transactional factors do not accumulate as stocks but can define the inflows into and outflows out of stocks. Transactions cannot be a stock. Subsequent transactions may reinforce a pattern of transactions but they replace the previous transaction. Transactions can only influence flows into or out of a stock.

Attitudinal factors are akin to the Mental Model level of the Iceberg, encompassing the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, and values, which are often subconscious or unconscious. They are set by means by which people adapt or acquiesce to the patterns of transactions which if unchecked or unquestioned then allow those established structures to continue functioning through the same continuing pattern of transactions.

The category Attitudinal within S.A.T. relates to widely held beliefs, values, norms, and intergroup relations that affect how large groups of people think and behave e.g., ethnic tensions, social capital, fears, group trauma, religious beliefs, and attitudes like trust in government or a belief in “rugged individualism” and can be non-physical stocks. However, these invariably arise from the Structural and Transactional factors and can be in turn applied to them as well.

If Attitudinal shifts cannot bring changes to Structural factors through a shift in Transactional patterns or vice-versa then that Structural factor may make the system, to use a term used before, entrenched requiring far greater leverage from factors that may not exist as of yet. This can be true even if the Structural factor is not formal or even apparent.

There is a difference between individual social beliefs or what the course calls Attitudinal and what might be termed structural norms of institutions which are not human. All belief is human and although individually based can be aggregated. The later structural norms are not as dependent upon individuals in regard to short, mid-term or sometimes even long-term existence of the system. This is part of the reason why many institutional systems can become entrenched.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Systems Practice Factors and Themes As Pieces of a Systems Puzzle

Systems Practice introduces certain operational terms such as factors, forces, enablers, inhibitors, and themes as components of their approach to Systems Thinking. These are in addition to the basic Systems Thinking terms and concepts introduced in the series on Donella Meadows’Thinking in Systems” which although not necessarily essential for application is part of providing a deeper foundational understanding.

The Systems Practice course defines these operational terms for the creation of a system map or in the early stages perhaps more like creating pieces of a puzzle. Unfortunately, these operational terms are not defined as adequately or precisely as they might be so what follows is my interpretation of them. The understanding of each concept can be dependent upon the understanding of other concepts, often introduced later in the course, ideally creating a holistic perspective by the end.

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."

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 the previously established mission focus through the Guiding Star, Near Star and Framing Question created prior by the group.

A Google spreadsheet, such as Factors Themes Grouped used with the Plastic Pollution in Thailand project can be provided to collect the team member’s suggested factors for the system. The Google sheet created for the Plastic Pollution project consisted of six columns. Who suggested the factor, the factor itself and the four different forms of categorization that could be applied to those factors.

  • Author 
  • Factors 
  • Inhibitor/Enabler 
  • Themes 
  • Upstream or Downstream 
  • S.A.T. 
The Google Sheet for the Jerusalem Vision project was modified both during and after brainstorming for factors and was more of a deliberative process than with Plastic Pollution. The Google Sheets then become the source of content for the relevant Kumu systems maps to be made.

What the Systems Practice course calls factors Kumu systems mapping calls elements and they are by default the filled circles on a map which can be sized and colored as desired (or even made different shapes or images). Kumu elements are the visual graphic representation of Systems Practice factors. This involves another transition in thinking, moving from text-based linear, what I have labeled longitudinal thinking to graphics based latitudinal thinking which can be more holistic but still requires certain rules to be followed based on Systems Thinking concepts.

Our Jerusalem Vision team began expressing some of the factors, or influences or as the course termed it "forces" that affect the system. The collected factors are also considered as “drivers” by the Systems Practice course. A driver is the idea of one factor or thing changing or causing an effect to another thing.

Our approach was endeavoring to understand the forces that constitute the system in its present form, in this case, Jerusalem, not to try to reconfigure the system or targeting certain factors to change into the shape we believed to be better though at times we had to again remind ourselves of this.

In saying that we should be endeavoring to understand the forces that constitute the entire system in its present form I should explain my understanding of the Systems Practice concept of force. It is the dynamic causal relationships between two factors. One factor, the cause, has an effect on another factor. 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. These can then be categorized according to the course as different types of forces, either as enabling or inhibiting within the system under question.

At this stage then, prior to actual mapping, there is only a collection of separate factors presumed to be part of a system but with no real understanding as of yet of their relationships, like cutting up pictures for pieces of a puzzle and putting them in a box. A collection though is not a system, it requires dynamic and purposeful assembly.

The Systems Practice approach, as it will be shown, disaggregates factors and then seeks to develop fresh connections between them to provide new insights. This also enhances complexity, unrealized at this point and potentially to be made more coherent by the Systems Practice process.

The course then speaks of forces between the factors, basically connoting causality or correlation. As I explained above, it takes two factors to create a force. Kumu represents these forces graphically as connections between the elements. In the course, the format used is + and - signs. This is where categorization of factors as either upstream or downstream and very often both.

A connection originates with either a plus sign meaning an increase in that factor (cause/upstream) or a minus sign meaning a decrease in that factor and ends in either a plus or minus sign to the connecting factor (effect/downstream). So an increase/decrease in A can lead to an increase/decrease in B and all the combinations possible. It can also mean moves in the same or opposite direction as in when A moves in a certain direction B moves either in the same direction or the opposite direction.

Again, any actual connections between factors representing causal relationships or forces have not been established at this point. Factors are grouped together first as either enablers or inhibitors and then categorized under a set of common characteristics or what the course called “themes”.

Taking a step back with the benefit of some hindsight, themes are part of the dynamic assembly mentioned above occurring after factor collection, separating enabling forces from inhibiting forces and then subsequently combining such forces into various themes or collections of common ideas. Themes illuminate the related forces at work within the system.

My own Systems Practice approach avoids lumping factors or blending them together by a common label to make them more homogeneous even though based on different aspects or perspectives, instead emphasizing a diversity of ideas across themes.

Factors under Systems Practice hopefully then retain a certain independence or isolation from being made to specifically serve solely one side of the system conflict or the other until their influences within the larger system are determined. They are often shown to have counterparts that they were either influenced by or that they influenced or as said above more likely both.

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

It is presumed to be less confusing for a group if the clusters are made up of either all enablers or all inhibitors. There can be enabling factors that drive the cost of living down alongside inhibitors that drive that same cost of living up. It will be suggested then doing two different types of loops based on a particular thematic cluster, one for the dynamics that drive the cost of living down and then another one on the dynamics that drive the cost of living up when creating systems maps with Kumu.

Another reason for separating forces into two groups of enablers and inhibitors is to ensure that the group is putting sufficient attention on those factors that make things better in the current system configuration before merging them into loops and not only focusing on those that were making things worse.

The tendency had been for past 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 that could have even made 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. Sometimes this might require taking a second look.

So the group has various collections of factors organized into different themes bringing up again 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 photo collage. What is being sought is moving from talking about things to creating a story.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Framing the Systems Practice Framing Question

The last blog post dealt with the Systems Practice Guiding Star and Near Star, both of which are future-oriented. This post will deal with the related Systems Practice idea of a Framing Question. A Framing Question focuses on understanding the system to be analyzed in its current configuration and to be ultimately affected to bring about the Guiding Star.

At this point, we are beginning to seek to understand what creates the forces which maintain the system in its current configuration, without passing judgment on either side. By understanding these forces we may then hope to leverage some of them to move the system towards our Guiding Star. How we do that will be based in part on how we format the Framing Question:

1.  One way is to ask what are the forces that affect the ability to improve the system for everyone?

2.  Another way is to propose you can’t understand how something enables or inhibits a healthy system unless you understand fill in the blank.

However, as one objective is to potentially incorporate Systems Thinking and Practice into democratic processes this post will also deal with framing from the perspective of democratic deliberation though more through Governance through Community rather than elected representatives. This takes the Framing Question a further step as well as expanding its inclusion.

The Kettering Foundation, as part of Governance through Community, recognizes that one of the biggest challenges facing communities is developing the capacity of Working thru Difficult Decisions. Because ostensibly, "Deliberation seems like neurosurgery or something only an outsider can do” this can make some fearful of attempting it.

”The Kettering Foundation has found that sound decisions are more likely to be made when people weigh—carefully and fairly—all of their options for acting on problems against what they consider most valuable for their collective well-being. This is deliberative decision making. It not only takes into consideration facts but also recognizes the less tangible things that people value, such as their safety and their freedom to act.”

Their suggested approach is Naming Framing Difficult Issues for Sound Decisions

”The obvious question is, what would motivate citizens to invest their limited time and other resources in grappling with problems brimming with conflict-laden, emotionally charged disagreements? Generally speaking, people avoid conflict, and they don’t usually invest their energy unless they see that something deeply important to them, their families, and their neighbors is at stake. And they won’t get involved unless they believe there is something they, themselves, must do.”

”These differences don’t necessarily become divisive, however, especially when people recognize that although they don’t share the same circumstances, they share the same basic concerns. In deliberative decision making, people can see that they both agree and disagree. This encourages them to agree to disagree and lessens the likelihood of polarization."

The National Coalition for Dialog and Deliberation (NCDD) asked the question “How might we make our D&D work more equitable, inclusive and empowering?” One of their objectives involved Framing which for them meant ensuring that the community is the key framer of the issue(s).

This was seen, however, while a civic issue, not a priority one. It was connected by systems maps through (Kumu) clustering to similar concerns from the categories of access, trust, and barriers.

The priority NCDD issue to which it was connected was “Celebrate individuals who have opposing views rather than attempting to marginalize them”. Taking their concerns of equity, inclusion, and empowerment to an individual human level.

Another resource, the Community Tool Box, by the Center for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas, featured in Community Tech Tools and Healthy Cities pages of the NCP wiki discusses framing and reframing more in terms of initial implementation, having the idea accepted.

Frame a powerful question”, a Deloitte Insights article, has us ask questions that focus on the learning opportunity and that can provoke and inspire others to change the game for longer-term results.

The following are the Framing Questions for the last three Systems Practice projects. Each is uniquely associated with its particular project but they also differ in their scope and boundaries as well as whether they focus on institutional factors or are more people focused.

For the “Last Mile Food Truck Feeding the Unsheltered Homeless” project the Framing Question was:

“What are the factors and their relationships in the "Access to Food(Healthy) system" and in the environment that are lacking for the homeless population and that would determine the real impact of the food truck on getting people back into the community once introduced?

As part of this question we will also be asking:

1. What prevents those struggling with homelessness from accessing available Food(Healthy) resources?

2. What prevents Food service providers from accessing their target demographic (homeless, or those who are unstable and threatened with homelessness)?”

For the Plastic Pollution project, the team leader came up with the more succinct final version of the Framing Question.

”What forces account for the current levels of plastic pollution in Bangkok?”

Our course catalyst for the project, Yeu advised us:

“The framing question can be more targeted towards discovering the forces at the bottom of the iceberg, i.e. the beliefs and perceptions of stakeholders. Here in also lies the crux of the direction that your guiding star can provide”.

Tying it back to the Guiding Star and potentially expanding the inclusion of a greater number and diversity of stakeholders. If this can't be accomplished in the initial stages of the Systems Practice project, it could be at later stages even after completion of the course.

How you frame a system and how others see you framing it influences how those others will interpret it, even if you didn’t use either Systems Thinking or Systems Practice to build it.

In the blog post A Second Look at Neoliberalism with a Community Face and Asset Based Community Development, a particular Scottish perspective saw ABCD efforts as framing notions of civil society and citizenship as being separate and independent of any notion of state responsibility (though not removed from as the article’s authors state), thereby promoting privatization of public life. A position totally at odds with ABCD’s own perspective of itself.

Although NCP wrote in opposition to the Scottish perspective, it still demonstrates the importance of the Framing Question being asked of the system you are investigating, even after the Systems Practice course is completed.

Our Framing Question for Jerusalem Vision is:

“What forces encourage or discourage interaction, trust, and understanding between members of the different communities?”

Some of the factors involved in the system were framed as “Tribalism," which could be seen as controversial though it could be pointed out that tribalism exists in American politics and other areas of the world. As for framing the question within the current geopolitical situation our team leader Yoel, the only one of us to actually live within the system in question advised us to avoid pie-in-the-sky thinking as what we are addressing is a different model of rights/privileges/collaboration than found in the Western democracies.

“The West cannot come into the Middle East (e.g., Iraq) and expect a millennium of entrenched religious and social conventions to change overnight to mirror its Western cultural values and beliefs. There has to be a middle ground where the West's positive values meet the East's traditions, customs, and mores and find a synthesis that embodies the best of both worlds without relinquishing the benefit of either!”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Helps Set Course for Systems Practice Guiding Star

The last three blog posts were a detour from the current look at the Systems Practice Jerusalem Vision project to review underlying Systems Thinking principles through Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems, A Primer”.  Addressing the two new levels of inquiry that we are asking others to adopt to address wicked problems, the first being the controversial events that describe but don't really define such problems.

Arguably, for many for whom the course is a one-off to address some specific issue, this may not be important but if Systems Practice were to be adopted as a standard means of addressing a host of issues over the long term then a better understanding of Systems Thinking becomes basically essential in my view.

Meadow tells us that all systems are composed of elements, connections and, most importantly, a purpose or function. The fulfillment of that purpose or function is a goal of that system, perhaps subsidiary, perhaps primary. Both she and, especially Stafford Beer advise us that the Purpose Of A System Is What It Does.

With each System Practice course project, we decide that a system, with which we are involved, should have different goals and therefore different purposes and functions. We don't actually know fully the goals, purposes or functions of the system in its current configuration, except perhaps for some that may be espoused, but we are first going to decide what is it, what new state, that we are trying to attain. The Systems Practice course does this by establishing a Guiding Star

In each of the Systems Practice projects we did not have a common vision when first thrown together. It slowly came together beginning with either the creation of a Complexity Spectrum or online brainstorming or both to determine whether we were dealing with a complicated (clock) problem or a complex (cloud) one. 

At first, our ideas were often directed at finding silver bullet solutions to the problem rather than developing a better understanding of the system under question. Reacting to the current situation rather than proactively planning to navigate to a desired future states by a Guiding Star. 

The concept of developing a Guiding Star was previously considered in New Community Paradigms with setting superordinate goals as part of the series Exploring with the Dialogue, Deliberation and Systemic Transformation Community to Discover New Possibilities

The formal description for that effort was, "What superordinate goal could replicate across the collective set of value systems, and act as a 'guiding star' for systemic transformation?”, which our facilitator paraphrased as, "What everyone wants, but no one entity can do themselves." 

The Guiding Star, according to the Acumen Systems Practice course, is an aspirational state or desired future.

A mistake in the first Systems Practice course, by me, was skimping over the Guiding Star, as well as the Near Star and Framing Question, which were created in large part by the group I was leading. I had a working systems map by that time and thought that I already had the needed insights. My approach saw our role as providing answers for consumption by a community, dismissing any concern for democratic deliberation or diversity.

Our collective vision of what that purpose or goal should be still needed to be developed. It was, and I had some input, but it was the conglomeration of about nine different perspectives. For the group dealing with food trucks for homeless campsites the Guiding Star was:

"A societal structure in which, when a person’s community support system fails, he receives appropriate, sufficient and timely support to prevent him from falling into homelessness through a community system that produces minimally decent shelter, sustenance and healthcare for those who become homeless working to integrate them fully back into the community."

During the Thailand Plastic Pollution project it was as decided by those defining the project:

"We are trying to move the City of Bangkok and the entire country of Thailand from both being blighted by and blighting oceans with plastic pollution to being plastic pollution-free." 

Our course catalyst for the project, Yeu advised us that:

"Guiding stars are best described as a vivid future state that provides a direction rather than measured goals. In that respect, do every member of your team share a common understanding of the difference between a system state that is healthier than a previous state? In your case, a less plastic-polluted state than another? Counting plastic items is not a good idea. So what is?”

The point is that there is more to being healthy than merely not being sick. He recommended, which I have also, the use of the "Systems Thinking Iceberg" Another potentially useful resource "Donella Meadows 12 places to leverage systems", emphasizes paradigm shifts in the beliefs and perceptions of stakeholders. It became the basis for the blog post "Dana" Meadows Helps Find Purpose and the Plastic in a System of Plastic Pollution.”

Based on these insights, I advised the Jerusalem Vision team that the Guiding Star should not be a blueprint of an ideal system. It is more giving reason for you wanting to create the ideal system or what it will be to drive you to want to create it, what you hope to achieve to drive you forward through times of hardship and struggle. Being an ideal, it isn't merely delivering the basics but it also won’t attain a level of finality either.

Our Guiding Star for Jerusalem Vision became: 

  • "We are trying to move towards a social system that always strives to achieve win-win solutions for all involved."
  • "We aspire to a Jerusalem where every resident has equal access to health services, education, employment opportunities, cultural services and regardless of race, culture, gender, socioeconomic background, or other human difference by fostering mutual trust and respect between all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants." 
  • "We aspire to a Jerusalem where all communities have a basic trust in the system and bear a mutual respect for the rights of all other communities in Jerusalem and uphold the value of mutual collaboration." 
  • "We aspire to achieve a social reality in Jerusalem where all communities feel secure in their identity while respecting the identities of other communities." 

The Near Star is a more near-term goal of a 5-10 year timeframe, a desired but provisional outcome towards the Guiding Star.

The Near Star, I suggested to the team, is not the most basic or least viable result or one that meets minimum requirements of the system that we have in mind. The Near Star, at least in my view, should be the system that we need to put in place to begin to move towards the Guiding Star, not a lesser version of the Guiding Star. While still being expansive enough that it isn't a clockwork objective.

Our first Near Star for Thailand Plastic Pollution was: 

“Bangkok City actors are able to work effectively toward reducing plastic pollution.”

The term “city actors" sounded too institutional or government oriented. It could include community actors but too often from the perspective of those in power. The more community-based term “stakeholders” with the definition being an entity that can affect or is affected by the wicked problem was used contingent with it being as inclusive as possible which would mean expanding outreach and increasing the complexity of overall interactions.

"Stakeholders, who can affect and are affected by plastic pollution in Thailand are able to work effectively toward the elimination of plastic waste." 

Our officially submitted Near Star for Jerusalem Vision is:

"Creating contexts and environments where members of different communities learn and work together encouraging the growth of mutual respect between them as individuals."

Unofficially, for the Jerusalem Vision project we decided that instead of looking at the Near Star as a stepping stone (milestone) toward the larger target (Guiding Star) we would embrace it as a "sandbox" where we could test our understanding of the system to see if we understood it enough to take even more daring steps to influence it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Provides a Primary Systems Thinking Review pt 3

It is about time for the usual reminder given with posts on Systems Practice and other courses. This blog post series on Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems - A Primer” is not a substitute for reading the book. Read the book. This is only my perspective on what I have learned from Donella Meadows’ lessons in particular and Systems Thinking in general.

The last post discussed what was important to discern about systems (purpose or function), the constrained roles of leaders, and feedback loops, particularly balancing loops used to regulate. Balancing feedback loops though don’t work only through human or programmed decisions, they also work through physical laws.

“Whatever the initial value of the system stock (coffee temperature in this case), whether it is above or below the “goal” (room temperature), the feedback loop brings it toward the goal. The change is faster at first, and then slower, as the discrepancy between the stock and the goal decreases”.

It is based on a function as discussed in the blog posts on the Complexity Explorer course.

We are used to (I am) thinking of goals as being tied to a purpose (the purpose of this activity is to attain that goal), so something is imposed to change the current situation from what it is to what we want. Which may be part of the reason we often have difficulty discerning purpose or function, if it’s a matter of maintaining the system’s own integrity rather than what we want.

The goal or better function (the purpose is the goal) of a river is to flow into a lake or ocean. The river does not do this intentionally on purpose. Rather it is a step or function in a feedback loop of the world’s hydrology system and subsequently an element in many other systems, including ecological, fishing and shipping.

Meadows makes another important point, That balancing feedback mechanisms don’t always work, at least not as we want. They may not be capable of bringing the stock to the desired level, interconnections, especially the information part of the system may fail, arrive too late or at the wrong place or be unclear or incomplete or hard to interpret. Actions triggered may be too weak or delayed or be resource-constrained or simply ineffective. Breakdowns in a system should be differentiated though from poor system design.

Goal-seeking or stabilizing balancing loops are not the only type of feedback loops. Reinforcing loops, the second type of the two, exist when an element (or stock) within a system has the ability to reproduce itself growing at a constant fraction of itself as with populations and economies.

They are amplifying, reinforcing, self-multiplying. They can either cause healthy growth in a virtuous circle or runaway destruction in a vicious one enhancing the direction of change that is imposed upon on it with the capacity of snowballing. Generating more input to a stock the more it has and less input the less it has with each iteration.

This is not simple linear growth at a constant rate over time. It is exponential growth. Again, following the path of functions like the logistic equation discussed in the Complexity Explorer series.

I believe that another point can be derived from what Meadows has said about feedback loops and the connections or flows through which they operate. They invariably require energy. Reinforcing loops always require energy, as with life sustained through energy from the sun for populations. A balancing loop may simply be turned on or off based on attaining a goal (information feedback) but often can also require additional energy to act as a countervailing force.

Think of Meadows’ example of a coffee cup cooling but replace it with an unplugged refrigerator being defrosted. The function remains the same. The change from the initial value to goal follows the same functional path. It can also be considered a balancing loop. Plugging the refrigerator back in involves applying energy. Electric energy is converted to mechanical energy which is used to cool again the food inside. A decision is made as to where to set the desired temperature and another balancing loop is put into effect.

The first balancing loop used the second law of thermodynamics allowing the refrigerator to go naturally from a lower state of entropy to a higher one. The second balancing loop, still following the second law, forced the closed system through the input of energy into a lower state of entropy although it increased overall (higher) entropy in the environment.

Reinforcing loops in this scenario could be the increasing use of energy to power the refrigerators because of increasing population and decreasing resources. More people means more refrigerators bought especially if economic circumstances improve for some and that means more energy consumed depended upon dwindling fuel supplies. Real world, physical systems will involve entropy. This could be considered a source for so-called unintended consequences of systems.

A stock then can have several reinforcing and balancing loops of differing strengths pulling it in several directions. A system’s different feedback loops can make the systems stocks grow, decrease until eliminated or coming into balance with other flows in the system. A flow may be adjusted by the contents of a number of different stocks, filling one stock while draining another while feeding (via information) into decisions affecting yet another one.

Feedback loops are easier to understand as graphics such as systems maps than as written words. ”Pictures work for this language better than words, because you can see all the parts of a picture at once”. This means though learning, as was said in the first post of this series, a new way of doing things, a new way of thinking, a new cognitive grammar capable of inquiring into and understanding systems. There are online programs and communities attached to them that can help with this. My go-to choice is Kumu.

However, anyone somewhat familiar with this New Community Paradigms effort in general and more specifically with the approach to Systems Thinking and of Systems Practice will know that neither the Acumen course nor usually I, use Stock and Flow models. (When I do, I use Insight Maker) The Systems Practice course and I instead use Kumu to create Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs).

CLDs include (conceptually) elements and connections as do Stock and Flow Models but they don’t have explicit quantifiable stocks, and while flows can be quantified, connections in CLDs are not. The preference for CLDs is that they are conceptually easier to work with and more intuitive for others to understand. However, Meadows (and others) has convinced me that we should at least be thinking of what the stocks would be, whether physical or intangible and what paths the connected flows would take to ascertain that the system in question is having a manifested and not an imaginary impact on the world.

Meadow speaks of challenging her students (and readers) to think of human decisions that occur without a feedback loop, a decision made without regard to information about the level of the stock being influenced with “falling in love” and “committing suicide” being the most common supposed “non-feedback” decisions. The motivations for both are intangible so we can have difficulty with thinking in terms of stocks and flows but our world is materially different when the state of the world exists either with them or without them and if it does with either that it can quickly snowball in that particular direction upon reaching a tipping point.

In real systems, feedback flows are linked together, often in fantastically complex patterns going beyond being limited to only one of three basic states of being steady or approaching goals smoothly or exploding exponentially.

”Watch out! If you see feedback loops everywhere, you’re already in danger of becoming a systems thinker! Instead of seeing only how A causes B, you’ll begin to wonder how B may also influence A—and how A might reinforce or reverse itself”. When you hear in the nightly news that the Federal Reserve Bank has done something to control the economy, you’ll also see that the economy must have done something to affect the Federal Reserve Bank. When someone tells you that population growth causes poverty, you’ll ask yourself how poverty may cause population growth."

The world then becomes dynamic, not static and the essential question becomes “what is the system?”, rather than who or which side is to blame.

The concept that a system can cause its own behavior through feedback is not an intuitive idea, though living with it in the real world sometimes seems it may be We ourselves are complex entities displaying emergent properties of life, consciousness (and I would assert free will), creating through our interactions with others the emergent existence of societies, cities and nations. We seem to live with the inherent complexity already underlying our lives and learning more about it doesn't need to impair our ability to live our lives. It is rapid, new and non-coherent complexity which makes us afraid of dealing with wicked problems, deferring them instead. More problems then arise because our decisions can be based on an assumed unchanging state of affairs and our own biases.

This is the end for now of the look at Donella Meadows’ “Thinking in Systems - A Primer”. Again, read the book. Up to this point, she has covered the basics and has provided enough material to return to the Jerusalem Vision Systems Practice project in the next post.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Provides a Primary Systems Thinking Review pt 2

Continuing the look at Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems - A Primer”, the previous post described systems as consisting of elements, interconnections, and, most importantly, function or purpose.

Elements are the most noticeable parts of systems and usually the least important in defining the unique characteristics of the system unless they can change relationships or purpose. Changing relationships usually change system behavior. A system may be dramatically altered if its interconnections are changed.

The most crucial determinant though of a system’s behavior is often its function or purpose despite being the least obvious part of a system. A change in function or purpose can be drastic, changing a system profoundly, even if every element and interconnection in the system remains the same. For myself, this means that if two systems have the same elements but a different set of interconnections between those elements and different purposes then they can be considered distinct systems.

These are, however, all abstract concepts. To deal with changes physically manifested in the world Systems Thinking uses the more ”concrete” concept of stocks. A stock is an accumulation of material or information built up over time and, according to Meadows, is the foundation of any system. Stocks are the elements of the system that can be seen, felt, counted, or measured at any given point in time. A stock, like elements of which stocks are comprised, does not have to be physical.

A system makes a manifested change in the world, whether through physical means, a river turning turbines or intangible, economic uncertainty leading to the election of a right-wing government.

”If you understand the dynamics of stocks and flows—their behavior over time—you understand a good deal about the behavior of complex systems”.

Stocks change over time through the actions of flows, both in and out. “A stock, then, is the present memory of the history of changing flows within a system”. Stocks are therefore not static. Even if in a state of dynamic equilibrium in which the level of a stock does not change, there is a continuous flow through it. This may give the appearance of unchanging permanence.

It is much more difficult to change the level of the stock abruptly than it is to adjust a flow. Stocks, especially large ones, respond only gradually to change, even sudden change. A vital, key point to understanding why systems behave as they do is that “a stock takes time to change, because flows take time to flow”. Stocks usually change slowly, acting as delays, lags, buffers, ballast, making them sources of momentum in a system.

”People often underestimate the inherent momentum of a stock. It takes a long time for populations to grow or stop growing, for wood to accumulate in a forest, for a reservoir to fill up, for a mine to be depleted”.

The presence of stocks allows inflows and outflows to be independent of each other and, moreover, to be temporarily out of balance with each other.

We seem to be more capable of focusing on stocks than on flows and on inflows more than on outflows. Often failing to see that a stock can be increased by decreasing its outflow rate as well as by increasing its inflow rate.

Humans have invented hundreds of stock-maintaining mechanisms through individual and institutional decisions designed to regulate the levels in stocks and to make inflows and outflows both independent and stable. Monitoring stocks constantly, making decisions to take actions designed to raise or lower stocks or to keep them within acceptable ranges. Those decisions, along with the mechanisms for regulating the levels in the stocks by manipulating flows, add to a collection of “feedback processes.

"Systems of information-feedback control are fundamental to all life and human endeavor, from the slow pace of biological evolution to the launching of the latest space satellite. . . . Everything we do as individuals, as an industry, or as a society is done in the context of an information-feedback system".

—Jay W. Forrester 

Feedback mechanisms are then a mechanism that operates through a feedback loop to create consistent behavior that persists over time. Feedback loops can cause stocks to maintain their level within a range or grow or decline. Flows into or out of a stock are adjusted based on changes in the size of the stock itself. Whoever or whatever is monitoring the stock’s level begins a corrective process, adjusting rates of inflow or outflow (or both) and so changes the stock’s level. The stock level feeds back through a chain of signals (information) and actions (physical changes) to control itself.

A feedback loop is then formed when changes in a stock affect the flows into or out of that same stock. A bank interest-bearing savings account is a simple and direct feedback loop. The total amount of money in the account (the stock) affects the amount of money coming into the account as interest (the flow) based on earning a certain percent interest each year. The total amount of interest paid into the account each year (the flow in) is not a fixed amount, but varies depending on the size of the total amount in the account (stock) and increases the stock amount by that much for the next iteration.

The stock is adjusted by the flows into or out because of changes in the size of the stock itself. A corrective process is taken then by whoever or whatever is monitoring the stock’s level, adjusting rates of inflow or outflow (or both) and thereby changing the stock’s level. The stock level feeds back through a chain of signals (information) and actions to control itself.

  • As long as the sum of all outflows exceeds the sum of all inflows, the level of the stock will fall.
  • As long as the sum of all inflows exceeds the sum of all outflows, the level of the stock will rise.
  • If the sum of all outflows equals the sum of all inflows, the stock level will not change; it will be held in dynamic equilibrium at whatever level it happened to be when the two sets of flows became equal.

Not all systems have feedback loops. Some systems are relatively simple open-ended chains of stocks and flows. They still have elements, interconnections and function or purpose and might be affected by outside factors, but the levels of the systems own stocks wouldn't affect its own flows.

If the feedback mechanism tries to keep a stock at a given value or within a range of values through a stabilizing, goal-seeking, regulating loop it is called a balancing feedback loop.

”A balancing feedback loop opposes whatever direction of change is imposed on the system. If you push a stock too far up, a balancing loop will try to pull it back down. If you shove it too far down, a balancing loop will try to bring it back up”.

The idea being that if one knows all the dynamic possibilities of say a simple bathtub model one could deduce several important principles that can be usefully extended to more complicated systems.

Systems can also have an appropriate time horizon to the system question or problem being investigated allowing one to question what came before, and what might happen next. This helps to understand trends of system behavior over time instead of focusing too much attention on individual, (and all too often immediate) events. Behavior-over-time graphs can help with determining if a system is approaching a goal or a limit, and how quickly.

Whether elements or stocks, they are still models that we create of the real world. All models, whether mental models or mathematical models are still simplifications of that real world, subject t0 the often quoted George Box aphorism, “All models are wrong, some models are useful”.

Meadow also speaks of leaders in control of a system being able to, “play a different game with new rules, or can direct the play toward a new purpose”. However, she also says that (because stocks can be), “long-lived, slowly changing, physical elements of the system, there is a limit to the rate at which any leader can turn the direction of a nation”. So they too often make empty promises, changes that fail and blame the other side.

“Changes in stocks (by a country) set the pace of the dynamics of systems. Industrialization cannot proceed faster than the rate at which factories and machines can be constructed and the rate at which human beings can be educated to run and maintain them”.

While time lags coming from slowly changing stocks can cause problems in systems, they also can be sources of stability. “If you have a sense of the rates of change of stocks, you don’t expect things to happen faster than they can happen. You don’t give up too soon”.

This sense cannot, however, be held by only a few. Our existing entrenched systems make it too easy to choose leaders that really don’t have our best interests in mind even if well-meaning in their hearts. In this use “our” is meant to be applied as expansively and inclusively as possible. The question then is can democratic processes be applied in using Systems Thinking? The answer suggested by Systems Practice and from New Community Paradigms so far seems to be yes.

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