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.

Past Posts