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.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Gathering Factors and Forming Themes for the System in Question

The system in question is one responsible for the production of plastic pollution in Bangkok, Thailand. The focus of the project being undertaken as part of the  "Systems Practice: A Practical Approach to Move from Impossible to Impact" or SP USA course. It should be pointed out again, as has been done in the past, that these blog posts are not intended to be a substitute for the course, only a single perspective on it.

It should be kept in mind that the team’s Framing Question is:

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

We agreed as a team that those factors which maintained or increased the levels of plastic pollution are enabling the existing system and that any forces that decreased the levels, such as developing such means of decrease, were inhibiting factors. This is where cognitive diversity came into play, as we provide a number of different perspectives others may have their own alternative perspectives.

In the blog post before, the Google spreadsheet Factors Themes Grouped used to collect the team’s suggested factors for the system, was provided. Before getting to that though let’s take another look at the content of the particular situation we are addressing.

The Google Sheet also contained Plastic Pollution Top 20 (second sheet at bottom). The twenty countries listed are responsible for 83.1% of the total mismanaged waste going into the oceans according to the Science article “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean”. The Science article is the source for placing Thailand in the sixth position for polluting the ocean with plastic. However, we need to be extremely circumspect before making any judgments on accountability. It depends upon what is being measured.

If sorted by actual Mismanaged Waste (mmt/year) or million metric tons as the Science article does then China is in the first position and Thailand is in the sixth position. If sorted instead by the percentage of waste mismanaged then North Korea is in the first position and Thailand moves down to the twelfth position just below China.

If Mismanaged Waste (mmt/year) is divided by Population (millions) that would equal Per Capita Mismanaged Waste (mmt/year) which puts Sri Lanka in first position and Thailand in the fifth position. This is presumedly premised on the population along the coast, not the entire country, and waste generated being susceptible to polluting the ocean.

If there is a percentage of Mismanaged Waste (mmt/year) then there has to be a Total Waste (mmt/year) generated which if calculated would then place the USA in the first position and moves Thailand to the eleventh position. China moves back up to the second position.

Finally, Total Waste (mmt/year) divided by Population (millions) equals Per Capita Total Waste which still puts Sri Lanka first position with the US moving into second and Thailand moving down to eighth.

As an end user, the USA generates greater total waste through production and consumption but does a better job of addressing it. The waste being generated by Thailand is a result of export and economic expansion. This suggests that having a viable waste management infrastructure is a major factor.

Thailand is only a part of a global, economic production/supply chain/consumption system and the aggregate waste impacts the entire planet.

I tried getting my head around the essence of the problem that we were attempting to address, especially in Bangkok, Thailand but geography can be seen as one variable among many. There are more fundamental aspects of the system.

The fundamental problem, in my view, is that in a consumption economy geared towards the creation of consumable products plastic is a non-consumable component. A consumption cycle is used primarily for the delivery of an actual consumable product (basically either immediate consumption as in food packaging or longer-term consumption as in the use of durable goods) that is for the most part based on individual wants, needs and choices.

The plastic, therefore, has no real value to the end consumer on its own. It is an added cost to the producer, who would if possible not go to the expense of adding it except the consumer expects it and retooling is likely seen as too expensive. This added to the fact that the cost of plastic is a relatively upfront cheap alternative to what is basically part of the product delivery system minimizing the overall costs. Once the product is consumed then the plastic has no value to either the consumer or to the original producer. The plastic is then outside of the consumption cycle and the backend costs of removal go up. The effect of plastic pollution, however, is collectively felt requiring global collective action without any established system to do so.

The Google sheet we created for the project consisted of six columns.
  • Author
  • (Enabling) Factors
  • Themes
  • Inhibitor/Enabler
  • SAT - Structural / Attitudinal / Transactional
  • Upstream or downstream
Factors included were those currently at work in the system, purposely avoiding placing the focus on a desired future state instead of the current even if more dismal one or coming up with hypothetical inhibitors. Within the current system, each factor would play the role of cause or effect or both but that was not being determined at this point. Whether a factor could be seen as enabling the system as in maintaining and increasing plastic pollution or inhibiting the system as in diminishing or decreasing plastic pollution is what could be determined. Did a factor maintain the mismanagement of plastic waste or did it diminish it?

Factors could also though be categorized for deeper SAT analysis later in the process as:
  • Structural, the physical and social environment as well as political, social and economic institutions and infrastructure
  • Attitudinal, widely held beliefs, values, norms and intergroup relations that affect how large groups of people think and behave and attitudes or beliefs
  • Transactional processes used by and interactions among key people 
The actual connections between factors representing causal relationships or forces had not been established. Factors could be grouped together first as either enablers or inhibitors and then categorized under common characteristics or what the course called themes. Themes illuminate the related forces at work within the system.

The team came up with six enabling themes and three inhibiting themes. These would be revised at a later point to what is currently reflected in the Google sheet. With Steve’s input the top six of the initial list were prioritized:

1. Consumer [enablers of current system functioning] (E)
2. Social Apathy (E)
3. New social awareness (I)
4. Government (E)
5. Social Enterprise/Business (I)
6. End-of-Life - [of plastic in production cycle] (E)

At this point, we were still working on the spreadsheet with a list of factors and themes. The next step was to categorize each factor as to whether it was upstream, or caused some other factor in the system, or whether it was downstream or was an effect resulting from some other factor in the system. Other, mostly Steve came up with a set of configurations. I, admittedly, found it very confusing trying to visualize and keep the potential relationships in my head. I needed to draw it out and the best tool for that was Kumu.

The columns of the Google sheet were then repurposed and exported to an Excel sheet. Factors became Label (for elements, the visual representations of factors), Themes became Type (of element) and the other columns were to be combined under Tag. The Excel sheet was then imported into a blank Kumu map. This was not part of the Acumen course but something learned prior and outside of it. 

The result was instead of a list of items a sheet with a group of labeled circles. The circles were then searched for and selected based on type or theme. Each theme was given a different color and different size according to priority. It was then that these factors, categorized by themes, were visually organized, by upstream and downstream configuration. The result is here. The more precise nature of the upstream/downstream relationships between factors had not been established yet.

The first part of this blog post is very concrete, the number of tons of plastic waste being put into the ocean. The second half is far more abstract. In many cases, the actual content does not matter, only the configuration of relationships. Tying the two perspectives together is easer if one has gone through the process themselves. The next step is to configure the pathways into circles or loops of persistent causality.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Finding Our Stars Near and Far to Navigate the System

This is the third post on the current Systems Practice course, what Acumen is calling A Practical Approach to Move from Impossible to Impact and what I am calling SP USA. There hasn’t though been as of yet any use of what is usually considered systems thinking tools, particularly systems mapping tools such as Kumu or Insight Maker to reveal systemic relationships. Plectica was used but primarily as a quick sketch to help organize information on a more analytical basis. Before systems mapping though, we needed to establish some system mindsets, including seeking system health, not mission accomplished, seeing patterns, not just problems, unlocking not imposing change and being adaptable.

Systems Practice Mindsets from Systems TOG on Vimeo.

The SP USA course takes its time to have participants in the process work together prior to committing to mapping the destination and journey they wish to take. The first step was having the fellow travelers have to come together.

The first post of this series called attention to the Kumu map Direct Democracy and Systems Thinking as a possible template under a community governance model. This turns out not to be the case. Although there was a diversity of different ideas there was not a diversity of differing ideas as there was with the first Systems Practice course, likely because there are fewer people this time. The Kumu Community Based Virtual Collaboration map may be a more applicable model because of our geographical separation. Each member of the team could be seen playing a different role. Steve Kennedy and Sander Fleuren could be seen as experts, Dohn Taylor and Shawn Ng as community activists though external ones, and I could be seen playing the role of a New Community Paradigms advocate. As such, there is no claim on my part as to the in-depth subject knowledge of the experts or the passion of the community activists. Simply the belief that using systems thinking or more specifically systems practice would add notable value to the process.

When first thrown together, we did not have a common vision. That slowly began to come together through the creation of the Complexity Spectrum and our, what might be considered online brainstorming. An issue, as mentioned in the last post, was that the ideas were not being directed at a better understanding the system under question but rather finding silver bullet solutions to the problem. It had been a matter of reacting rather than proactively planning to navigate to a desired future state by a Guiding Star and a Near Star as well as a Framing Question.

Yeu Wen, our course catalyst, introduced in the last post, again provided advice:

"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 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 your guiding star can provide :-)"

He made the point that there is more to being healthy than merely not being sick. He recommended the use of the "Systems Thinking Iceberg", which I have also found useful. Another resource is "Donella Meadows 12 places to leverage systems" which also emphasizes paradigm shifts in the beliefs and perceptions of stakeholders.

Guiding Star (The aspirational state or desired future)

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.

One discussion was on whether our focus on the locale for the Guiding Star should be larger than Bangkok. One consideration was whether Bangkok, as an instance of a system being described, was basically segregated or isolated from the rest of Thailand, suspected by me to be due to rapid urbanization, and how this might have impacted other areas in Thailand. Is the mismanagement of waste solely within the region of Bangkok or merely its impact? Or conversely, the source is Bangkok but the impact is spread across fishing communities along the coast?

Those more recently familiar with Thailand due to travels there agreed that the problem of plastic pollution is not exclusive to Bangkok but also extended across the country. There was also though the perspective that Bangkok is segregated and stand-alone from the rest of the country. It is by the far the largest city and has problems that are unique or at least magnified compared to other cities in the country. It can be noted that Bangkok is twenty-one times larger than the second largest city Nonthaburi

An implication considered of broadening the guiding star would be to influence the selection of solutions or business models working in a close-knit metropolis would likely not work in rural areas and visa-versa. Another question was whether the social entrepreneurs were local or from the outside through international agencies? The working assumption regarding the social entrepreneurs is that they are local.

Not having included entrepreneurs, particularly social entrepreneurs, more prominently in the Complexity Spectrum became to be seen as a mistake. Entrepreneurs can be seen as being part of a system and capable of being integrated into the larger social system and therefore should be considered. Systems of weak entrepreneurialism will operate differently than those with strong systems. However, at this point, how they would be integrated was not clear.

Near Star (near-term 5-10 year desired but provisional outcome)

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

The first Near Star we came up with was:

Bangkok city actors are able to work effectively toward reducing plastic pollution.
As a recovering city bureaucrat, the term “city actors" sounded too institutional or government oriented. The more community-based term “stakeholders” was suggested though it can have similar issues. It can include community actors but often from the perspective of those in power.

The aforementioned Rwanda article, "Smugglers work on the dark side of Rwanda’s plastic bag ban" is a good example of unintended consequences arising from not really understanding the system that is being changed in great part from imposed top-down solutions, without concern for the economic needs of those at the lower rungs of the economic ladder. The imposed solution was made though through the concept of Umuganda which, although a top-down government intervention, is based on a grassroots community legacy.

The term stakeholder was decided upon with the definition being an entity that can affect or is affected by the wicked problem contingent with being as inclusive as possible.

Steve came up with the final version of the Framing Question.

Framing Question (focus on understanding a system to be analyzed)

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

When coming up with ideas there is an attempt to prototype ideas that could be considered by the entities working on the ground in Thailand.

Having no current first-hand knowledge of the situation, one tries to be as open as possible. There will no doubt be a great deal of groundwork required before attempting to actualize the insights of the systems map, bringing to mind the work of Ernesto Sirolli. So everything written here needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt, making endeavoring to remain open to new and alternative pathways important.

My approach was with very broad brush strokes having limited familiarity with the topic. Each of us had a different perspective even if limited by differences in knowledge. With this particular assignment, we didn’t want to be using one common set of answers for everybody. This meant some ideas were similar and arguably could have been combined stripping away supposedly minor differences. However, according to Professor Scott E. Pagediverse groups outperformed groups of the best individuals at solving problems because “smart individuals” tended to think similarly, "diversity trumps ability". Retaining the diversity allowed for multiple causal pathways to be developed.

We then began the process of individually coming up with inhibitors and enablers and then grouping them to create themes and pick our top ones for SAT analysis. Next, we focused on the factors and worked both backward and forwards— asking both what that factor causes and what causes that factor— so as to later in the process to assemble them into feedback loops. In terms of mechanics, we used a Google spreadsheet to gather the data with which we each came up.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

USA Systems Practice Searching for Context

As revealed in the last blog post, a new Systems Practice course was begun, centered again in but not restricted to the United States. This differentiates it from an apparently United Kingdom-based course dealt with in previous blog posts, a difference based more on philosophy than geography. The SP USA course comes across as more pragmatic in my view. There was actually little practice with the SP UK course, more philosophical indoctrination but it did help to realize some important insights more fully.

One is a need to appreciate the difference between people finding themselves in a complex system and those finding themselves in complex situations, recognizing that these aren’t mutually exclusive. People in the actual applicable problem situation will have different perspectives from those considering a relevant abstract system. Currently, there are no actual on-the-ground stakeholders involved in the system map we are building. So this is another systems thinking simulation experiment. We are going to imagine that this is the real world, it isn’t.

Another is a need to better appreciate the need for a general knowledge of systemic relationships and for specific knowledge of the content of the subject itself. I’m not particularly knowledgeable about plastic pollution’s environmental impacts or about Bangkok, Thailand and its current economic and demographic makeup. Even less knowledgeable about the conjunction of plastic pollution and Bangkok, Thailand which will be even more unique. There will still be systemic parallels with other locations.

At this point in the Systems Practice process, we were trying to understand the issues through a more content based analytical perspective. Despite the use of Plectica with the Complexity Spectrum Map featured in the last blog post and a Plectica map on Plastic pollution and impact on the poor of Bangkok, the challenge is still being seen through a more reductionistic lens focused more on the content of the issues rather than their systemic relationships at this point.

The sources for the following came from preliminary suggestions by other team members, as a beginning to providing the knowledge background for the challenge.

Professor Kennedy, (Steve, recognizing his professional expertise), explained that Thailand was one of the top producers in the world of plastic pollution finding its way into the oceans and that he and a team were looking to go to Thailand this summer to work with local entrepreneurs in collaboration with corporate sponsors. Politically, the son of the King has succeeded his father and the Thai people have accepted this succession, so while there have been tensions for a long time, Thailand and Bangkok are now relatively stable.

There are viable business arguments for Sustainability Thinking in general. Social entrepreneurship can be seen as an attempt to draw upon business techniques to find solutions to social problems which is an objective in interacting with entrepreneurs in Thailand. Yet even if they have access to funding and outside expertise these efforts will still require time and energy. How these are utilized will determine impact.

Bangkok, Thailand is seen a significant contributor to plastic trash on the ocean floors being the sixth biggest contributor to ocean plastic. The added ramifications of income inequality paint Bangkok as a city of glitz and a city of desperation as it struggles to fight its addiction to plastic bags.

The root causes of the pollution might be found outside of the locality, assuming the plastic is produced outside of Bangkok and transported into the city in the shape of products and packaging. However, Thailand turns out to be a major net exporter of plastic. Local pollution of plastic in waterways in Bangkok is a locally generated input but upon entering the water system the plastic pollution becomes exceedingly mobile geographically after entering into the oceanic systems and the global impacts of plastic pollution in our oceans can be startling.

A diverse set of ideas were generated by members of the team. Each entrepreneur involved could have different desires, and capabilities. Team members could brainstorm suggestions similar to those suggested in this YouTube with 50 ideas from crafts, to fences, to boats and other ideas.

One approach could be knowing the recycling identification codes and producing an online manual. Recycling 10,000 tons produces approximately six times the number of jobs than sending it to landfill, someone pointed out. This would arguably increase earnings potential and would contribute towards income equality.

Another question raised is how to live in a petroleum based plastic-free world or a world that is perfectly circular economically with plastic re-entering into the technical cycle after every use phase? What is the potential of moving to bio-based plastics, even with added considered issues such as food vs fuel or others?

One opportunity for Thai entrepreneurs might be to tap into overseas foreign aid programs, but this 'you support us and we will buy your rubbish" approach as noted in China may not continue to be a dependable long term market.

Professor Kennedy told us that, “Here in the Netherlands we have the Ocean Cleanup dedicated to removing plastic from the oceans - although this does not stop new inputs of plastic. There is also the Dopper Foundation.”

Another supposedly market based solution to ocean plastic is the PlasticsBank, headed by David Katz, who gave a TED Talk on the subject. Though this seems to be another what the SP USA course would later deem a downstream solution.

Another approach is experimenting to see how the plastic could be de-constructed into its original raw inputs or experimenting to see if plastics, once shredded can be part of the road surfacing, aiming is to reduce the use of petroleum raw materials. Since June 2010, DSM and Roquette Frères, the global starch and starch-derivatives company headquartered in France, has had a formalized a joint venture agreement, named Reverdia, for the production, commercialization and market development of the first non-fossil feedstock derived chemical building block that allows customers in the chemical industry to choose a bio-based alternative with a lower eco-footprint for a broad range of applications, from packaging to footwear. Another example, closer to Thailand, is Avani from Bali, an SME seeking to replace disposable plastic products with 100% biodegradable, as shown in this Facebook video.

None of this, however, approaches the challenge on a systemic basis. Instead, appealing to a desire to find a silver bullet fix for the problem.

According to Professor Kennedy we have seen, on a global scale, a number of diverse approaches to how to 'solve' the problem of plastic pollution, including Pigovian taxes on plastic shopping bags such as in the UK and outright bans on plastic bags as was recently passed in California. In some cases though, this has resulted in unintended consequences, at least by those endeavoring to reduce and eliminate plastic pollution. The case of Rwanda resulted in a vicious feedback loop of economic disruption and government oppression. 

Professor Kennedy expressed the view that there is not much evidence that proposed solutions will have the desired long-term effects.

"The problem of plastic pollution in terms of quantity of material flows is relatively predictable - if we were to dredge a Bangkok waterway we could perhaps predict what we may find. Plastic pollution, however, is a highly connected problem to the local and global consumption and production systems."

Professor Steve Kennedy

Professor Kennedy sees a high potential for self-organization and emergence of new dynamics for the system. Solutions proffered though would need to be long-term and infer a change in the system purpose.

A great deal of insight using systems thinking remains developable. There was greater access to insightful advice this go-around. A course catalyst, Yeu Wen (耀榮) Mak (麥), provided advisory insights starting with the team's first submittal.

Yeu Wen pointed out that a challenge, particularly a wicked challenge, can be viewed at many levels or scales in both time and space, an important aspect of systems thinking which will determine the impact of the intervention.

Therefore, although our Complexity Spectrum scores and their rationale made sense, by changing the scale, global versus local, each score could potentially be changed too.

The environment, for example, is obviously dynamic at the broadest scale but can be very stable down to an atomistic scale such as with the activities of an individual at-a-defined-period of time or at an event level.

The work to come will greatly extend the perspective of the system but it will begin with gathering some basic factors, determining a destination and course, and setting a star to navigate towards.

Past Posts