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.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Dana" Meadows Provides a Primary Systems Thinking Review pt 1

During my recent trip to China, I took the opportunity to read Donella Meadows’ book “Thinking in Systems - A Primer”. Despite being featured in an NCP wiki-page, I had procrastinated about reading it. Part of the motivation to finally read it was dealing with the complex and controversial issue of Jewish Palestinian relations in Jerusalem using the still being tested methodology of Systems Practice based on principles of Systems Thinking. Three different levels of involved interaction utilized to deal with a wicked problem. The book reminded me or helped me to better understand or made me realize the importance and relevance behind the logic of a number of Systems Thinking principles and in many ways tie them into other New Community Paradigms efforts. It is what I wish I had known better and for others to know before taking the Systems Practice courses by Acumen

This is, however, my own summary of her work and my interpretation which has changed the order of the presentation of ideas, adding others (sometimes in parenthesis) derived from prior inquiries. Meadows provides far more examples. Direct and notable quotes by her are in italics.

The book, as Meadows informs us, is about a different way of seeing and thinking. People are often wary of the word “systems” and, if they have heard of it, the field of systems analysis, despite having been arguably doing some form of systems thinking all their lives. There is both a recognition of and a resistance to systems principles and especially to new ways of thinking. I suspect that it is still more of the later, resistance for most people than the former despite the Editor’s Note suggesting it is widely accepted (certainly not mainstream) making the remainder of the quote all the more frustrating:

”Today, it is widely accepted that systems thinking is a critical tool in addressing the many environmental, political, social, and economic challenges we face around the world. Systems, big or small, can behave in similar ways, and understanding those ways is perhaps our best hope for making lasting change on many levels.”

At the first page of the main body of the book, Meadows starts off with a quote, a previously cited observation that managers confront dynamic situations consisting of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. Russell Ackoff called such situations messes, ”Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes”.

”It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away”. Yet they persist in spite of any analytical ability and technical insights that have been directed toward solving them. They are intrinsically systems problems— characteristic of system structures that produce undesirable behaviors. Except that we too often don't recognize them as such.

Part of the problem is that Western society has so greatly benefited from science, logic, and reductive analysis over intuition and holism solving some serious problems by focusing on external agents and what I would refer to as complicated processes usually involving top-down command management. Past solutions are now though are either not working or are now becoming problems. A systems approach is not meant to be seen as being better though than a reductionist approach in thinking. They're complementary and as a result all the more revealing combined. The problem is that we are not close to being balanced and certainly not erring on the side of systems and holism.

Limiting discussion of systems to only words and sentences, which are restricted to only one at a time in a linear and (set) logical order, can also be a problem. Systems in the real world happen all at once being connected in many directions (along with multiple dimensions) simultaneously making it necessary to use a language (e.g. graphics systems mapping) that shares some of the same properties as the phenomena being examined. This also requires new thinking, a new cognitive grammar capable of inquiring into and understanding systems.

Meadows’ book defines a system as an interconnected set of elements coherently organized to achieve some function or purpose consisting of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and, most importantly, its particular function or purpose. Without the interconnections structured to produce behavior that results in a function or a purpose, it is not a system. It is more than the sum of its parts. Water is more than the sum of oxygen and hydrogen. Life is more than the separate inorganic chemical elements of which it consists.

There is an integrity or wholeness about a system and an active set of mechanisms (based on interconnections between elements) to maintain that integrity. Systems can be self-organizing, and often are self-repairing within some range of disruptions. Systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seek goals, mend injuries. They are resilient. A system can exhibit adaptive, dynamic, goal-seeking, self-preserving, and even evolutionary behavior. Even if consisting of nonliving elements, it can still attend to its own survival in ways that mimic life.

Using a slinky, Meadows demonstrates this inherent vitality of a system that some external ”thing” (her hands) manipulates (held or taken away) so as to suppress or release some behavior (bouncing up and down) that is latent within the structure (of the spring of the slinky). It was not some external force within the hands holding the slinky that caused the slinky to bounce up and down. The hand merely acts as a valve to inherent forces (kinetic energy) within the slinky. There is a relationship between the structure and behavior of the slinky, understood here to be an instance of a system.

”The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered, or driven by outside forces. But the system’s response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world.” The dynamic force of change comes from within the system itself, not externally. We don't impose solutions onto systems we reveal them.

Elements are not only physical entities. Intangibles can also be part of a system. While some interconnections in systems are actual physical flows, many are flows of information —signals sent to decision points or action points within a system which are often harder to determine. ”The interconnections in the tree system are the physical flows and chemical reactions that govern the tree’s metabolic processes—the signals that allow one part to respond to what is happening in another part.” It can be much easier to learn about a system’s elements than about its interconnections. With human-based systems, the information flows can be both formal and informal.

Systems, as a set applicable across numerous categories, biological, sociological, political, ecological, etc., can consist of common structures that repeatedly produce characteristic behaviors referred to as “archetypes”. They are responsible for some of the most intransigent and potentially dangerous problems but could be transformed, with a little systems understanding, to produce much more desirable behaviors by looking for leverage points for change. The problem is that we all too often not only fail to find them, but we also fail to look.

Meadows tells the story of The Blind Men and the Matter of the Elephant. ”This ancient Sufi story was told to teach a simple lesson but one that we often ignore: The behavior of a system cannot be known just by knowing the elements of which the system is made”.

While Meadows states that arbitrarily adding or taking away certain elements of a system can mean that you quickly no longer have the same system, she later explains can have limited applicability, ”Changing elements usually has the least effect on the system". It can be like someone changing their hair color and losing weight, often superficial in reality. They are still the same person. A system can generally remain to be itself, so long as its interconnections and purposes remain intact changing only slowly if at all, even with a complete substitution of its elements.

”Some people say that an old city neighborhood where people know each other and communicate regularly is a social system, and that a new apartment block full of strangers is not—not until new relationships (interconnections) arise and a system forms”.

System functions or purposes can be even harder to determine as they may not be explicitly spoken, written, or expressed. They can be best deduced through watching the operation of the system to see how the system behaves over time. This is similar to Stafford Beer’s POSIWID. Purposes should be deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals or as Chris Argyris put it, espoused goals.

Systems can be nested within systems, so there can then be purposes within purposes. However, they don't have to be in alignment with each other, Sub-purposes can come into conflict with each other and the overall purpose of the system, invariably when created by humans. Keeping sub-purposes and overall system purposes in harmony is an essential function of successful systems. Something nature is better at than are humans.

This means that humans can create systems that despite being seen as detrimental manage to maintain their existence regardless of how many times the elements (i.e. people) making up the system are changed. All the more difficult when a small portion of the human population benefits while controlling the inflows and outflows of the system. From the early days of the New Community Paradigms effort, I have labeled these entrenched systems.

My worry is that there is insufficient appreciation as to how difficult it can be to change such systems, all the more so if they are not even recognized as systems or our approach to them is not holistic but remains limited to reductive analysis through imposed top-down control management processes.

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