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.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The NCP Fantasy Systems Thinking Team - Forrester and Meadows

The last two posts attempted to span the distance between the practice of using graphic means and different methods to communicate the relationship of aspects, conceptual or real, of a situation or system, and understanding the complexity arising from those aspects themselves. The former, mapping is being used to assist in the navigating of the territory of the later with both being important. There is a higher level of mental organization still possible, the creation of an overlaying architecture to a systems approach. This arguably moves from a conceptual level to a more philosophical level.

The course provides in chapter 6 a sampling of the background of five notable figures in the systems thinking pantheon, each with a different approach or philosophy about systems thinking, Jay Forrester, Stafford Beer, Sir Geoffrey Vickers, Peter Checkland, and Russell Ackoff.

It was decided to come up with NCP's own Fantasy Systems Thinking Team. The first two selections have one the same as from the course and one new, Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows.

The NCP Wiki incorporates Systems Thinking as a primary component or wiki section, distinguishing between systems thinking approaches, which include systems dynamics programs and systems thinking applications for change-making efforts, featuring the Donella Meadows Project.

Though the course selected the man it did not select his methodology stopping short of incorporating Systems Dynamics. As reported in the blog post, Systems Thinking - Sailing through Wicked Problems on Complex Seas, the most adept advocate for Systems Dynamics is its creator, J. W. Forrester, Professor Emeritus Systems Dynamics at MIT who upended the conventional thinking in management and redefined what growth means through articles such as, System Dynamics: the Foundation Under Systems Thinking and Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century. Professor Forrester was deemed The Prophet of Unintended Consequences.

Donella Meadows, primary author of Limits to Growth, was a protege of Forrester. She is also a favorite systems thinker given her own wiki-page in the NCP wiki. Even though both Forrester and Meadows were from the systems dynamics school of systems, Meadows from an organic, environmental background can be seen as often being more accessible than Forrester coming from an engineering background though both are just as disciplined.

As reported in the blog post, Advancing Racial Equity Through Collective Impact and Systems Thinking, systems thinking is seen as a means of addressing complexity. We want pragmatic solutions without wasting too much time on theory, looking for something concrete to build upon. This, however, brings about a counterintuitive trap raised by Forrester, who demonstrates how problems can arise when these principles are ignored.

Policy improvements in the short run often degrade a system in the long run while policies producing long-run improvements often initially degrade the system at the start. Though the short run is more visible and more compelling, calling for immediate attention, its impact is not really more concrete, rather becoming more what I have called entrenched, or in Forrester's words:

“However, sequences of actions all aimed at short-run improvement can eventually burden a system with long-run depressants so severe that even heroic short-run measures no longer suffice. Many problems being faced today are the cumulative result of short-run measures taken in prior decades.”

The post asserts that an ability to adopt different perspectives is important to relational mapping and to systems thinking in general. It can also be important to a system of both deliberative and participatory democracy. Essential in questions of equity, particularly those questions asked in terms of community economic and empowerment equity requiring answers of the larger community.

According to Forrester, in navigating between our concrete wants and our complex realities, our own individual mental models are fuzzy, incomplete, and imprecisely formed, continually changing with time, even in conversations. Even with only a single subject each participant in a conversation can employ a different mental model with different fundamental assumptions never brought into the open and different goals left unstated. Our thinking is not as concrete as we would like to think.

The George Box rule, stated before, still applies, all models (including computer) are wrong, but some are useful or on Forrester advice, it's not having a computer but how the computer is used to create the model that's essential.

“With respect to models, the key is not to computerize a model, but, instead, to have a model structure and decision-making policies that properly represent the system under consideration.”

“A good computer model is distinguished from a poor one by the degree to which it captures the essence of a system that it represents.”

As Forrester asserts, though a community system is complex, which means the data coming out of it is complex, this does not necessarily mean the answer is more data.

“The problem is not shortage of data but rather inability to perceive the consequences of information we already possess. The system dynamics approach starts with concepts and information on which people are already acting.”

Forrester demonstrates the paradox of complex systems in our society in that, “Generally, behavior is different from what people have assumed” and how System Dynamics models can help us understand how difficulties within actual social systems arise, and why so many past efforts to improve social systems have failed.

"The country has slipped into short-term policies for managing cities that have become part of the system that is generating even greater troubles."

"Rather than face the rising population problem squarely, governments try to relieve the immediate pressures by more policemen, financial aid, busing to suburban schools, and subsidized health facilities. As a consequence, increasing population reduces the quality of life for everyone."

With simple systems, causes are close, whether arising from different parts of the system and in time to where or when the symptoms occur. This can easily mislead us into believing our actions to alleviate the symptoms to be concrete in nature.

The Donella Meadows Project (formerly Institute) has been introduced previously in this Systems Practice series in Approaching a Systems Practice, Yet Again as an example of an US-based systems thinking enterprise along with the Waters Foundation and the Institute for Systemic Leadership and in discussions regarding uncertainty related to messes, particularly irreducible uncertainty, as suggested by Donella Meadows in More Thinking on Mastering Systems Practice, Dealing with Messes. The uncertainty that is inherent in the situation itself, most notably, complex stochastic output.

Meadows definition of “A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something…. a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose.”

She expanded upon these simple foundational steps to establishing open, positive interactions to bring about change through Dancing with Systems. More importantly, she identified points of leverage within systems in endeavoring to bring about the desired transformation. In a post on the US Systems Practice versus Systems Thinking it was suggested using Donella Meadows' Twelve Leverage Points at least as a systems thinking based background resource.

In the ABCD Conflict Consensus Debate and Systems Thinking posts, ABCD or Asset Based Community Development was seen as fitting the Meadows’ definition of a system. It is a system, a complex, human-based system, that must exist within, and by its purpose interact with the complicated, procedure-based institutional systems. It is a system though that focuses nearly entirely on the "territory" of community relations rather than more abstract issues of mapping. Institutions are also seen as being composed of multiple systems, with an espoused system often conflicting with the actual in-use system, or systems of administration contrasted with systems of organizational culture. The use of systems thinking is an endeavor to bridge these supposedly conflicting perspectives.

As discussed in Sailing Complex and Wicked Seas with Icebergs (Systems Thinking), there is always the question of what specific system are we defining? Are we all talking about the same system, in terms of scope, abstraction, complexity, understanding and potential action?

New Community Paradigms is seeking empowerment of community members from the bottom up through deliberative democracy, scaffolded by systems thinking, and other means. One means of understanding the world, featured before is the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. With the systems thinking iceberg model, we are not only speaking of combining different methodologies or perspectives but more importantly in terms of combining different mindsets. The use of Kumu mapping, as part of a systems thinking approach, is an attempt to take the deepest levels of the systems thinking iceberg model as well as the most effective interventions of Donella Meadows' Leverage Points with the intention of applying them to real world problems.

Past Posts