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.


Friday, September 6, 2019

We are, each of us, a system. We are, each of us, systems in multitudes


We are, each of us, a system. We are, each of us, systems in multitudes. We are both at the same time. We are ourselves, as systems, of the same nature as those systems manifested within the world to both our senses and mind continuing the discussion from the previous post and Still Learning to Understand Systems. Separated, from all that we are not without, and from what we are within, as well as between other systems by boundaries that are placed there by us.

The most determinative means, it seems to me, but with the least amount of information of assigning a boundary to a system is to give it a label. Buckminster Fuller’s definition of a system as “the first subdivision of universe into a conceivable entity” provides an important initial context without particularities.  

Russell Ackoff, whose focus on systems was in addressing practical, real-world messes, the kind raised by uncertainty and complexity, said that any particular or specific system could be characterized by three essential conditions which I could also see as being able to assist in establishing the boundary of a system as defined by Fuller.

First, each simple element in a system has an effect on the behavior of the whole system. If it doesn’t have such an effect then it’s not part of the system and belongs outside the boundary. Second, that within a system each element is affected by at least one other element in that system, and that none of the elements has an independent effect on the whole. Every element then effects some other element or elements in the system and only has effect on the whole in conjunction with some other element or elements.  Third, it is not possible to develop totally independent subsystems from a subgrouping of a system’s elements. Any subsystems within a system that can be made totally independent belong on the outside of the system. It will likely take some experimenting to determine which elements fulfill all three categories. This still leaves a potentially large portion of elements that can be placed on either side of a boundary depending upon how it or they are defined but it is then a matter of consensus or coercion, both of which, again in my view, can be detrimental to understanding a system.

Fuller’s definition, however, is not merely an esoteric abstraction but can provide an immediate, visual illustration of the boundaries of a three-tier hierarchy anchored in geometry. 

The simplest possible three-dimensional configuration or minimum set of relations representing a stable structure (which can also be fractalized) within the “real world” is a tetrahedron, a four-sided, triangular-faced pyramid having four vertices, four faces and six edges subdividing the world into all that is outside the system’s structure (environment), the structure of the system itself (system), and the system’s interior (bounded elements and connections) having profound, practical implications for all system designers. 

Fuller’s definition of a system bears a particularly significant illustration of the aspect of verticality or nestability, the means of forming a hierarchy, series, or sequence wherein each member, element, or set is contained in and contains the next. From a systems thinking view of the world, this concept of hierarchy finds expression, in the natural world, as a stratified organization of increasing levels of complexity, which can be expressed as a sequence corresponding to levels of emergence distinguishing one level from the next by novel qualitative properties. 

Starting with elementary particles, to atoms and molecules to become various forms of matter, to leap from inorganic to simple organic life-forms,  to evolve into complex organisms, and in aggregate evolve into whole ecosystems, leaping again to consciousness to include humans and subsequently human society. Each level represents a cluster of interacting sub-components, consisting of elements of the previous level. 

Each level can be distinguished by the relative strength of the respective interactions by which it is constrained. Each level being stronger within and weaker between other levels. It is the constrained internal bonds that allow for the individual integrity of a level to stand out against the background of its environment and provide for a definition of boundary conditions.

This is very different from a strictly reductionist based top-down complicated systems of command and control hierarchy, discussed in the last post, that feature little in the way of nested verticality. It again means that from a systems thinking perspective one needs to optimize on at least on three levels, the system under consideration, its environment, and its internal components, as a coherent, harmonious integration of relevant aspects for any constructive, systemic intervention.  The familiar and conventional organizational or governance structures of our typical commerce, political, or social affairs organizations is simply inadequate, in not being internally rich enough, to address the demands of an increasingly complex world. 

Many examples of business and governance management perpetuate a model that imposes structures with grossly insufficient variety such as conventional concepts of leadership that violate the law of requisite variety by popularly entrusting power in a single person. Consider the complex interactions that increasingly characterize today’s society, in relation to the typical, still-prevailing, hierarchical, command-and-control structure, and I would add afflicted by ”complicatedness”. Such low-variety models ultimately only impoverish the system that is supposedly “under control.”

Another cybernetic term due to Ross Ashby is ”Ultrastability”, the cybernetic concept of regulation relating to the ability of a system to restore homeostatic equilibrium after unexpected perturbations even when a trajectory for doing so has not been specially pre-specified or built-in. A more complex, dynamic form of adaptation manifested in the typical homeostatic mechanism by which a fixed decision rule is applied to trigger an appropriate corrective action whenever equilibrium is disturbed.

In more interesting cases, read as more complex cases, such as brain-like systems, societies, or ecosystem, a sufficient amount of variety can be “built” into a system so that its internal reconfiguration can be made to match unpredictable changes in its environment even if a specific decision rule is not already embedded in its structure. The general rule then becomes “keep changing internal configurations,” or basically rewire the internal variety of the system in the search for a subset that matches new demands in real-time. The internal variety of a system, even if very high and ultrastable is, however, still finite as an entirely new environmental context-condition may require new options that the system cannot generate.  

This gives rise to Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety which states that “Only variety can absorb variety.” Effective regulation then can only be achieved when the regulating system contains at a minimum, the same amount of variety as the system being regulated. The requirement for requisite variety is applicable regardless of the type of system whether automated devices, technology processes, ecosystems, or social systems.

One means of enhancing requisite variety is redundancy. The term redundancy, commonly understood as unnecessary, in information theory refers to protecting information integrity from deterioration due to effects of background noise by increasing information content or channel capacity. 

At a state of maximum disorder or entropy, when no distinctions can be made or no information is discernible and activity ceases redundancy will be at zero. Redundancy then allows for more potential “possibilities.” If the rate of change of a system’s redundancy remains positive then it is self-organizing according to Heinz Von Foerster. This would logically seem to extend further to ”Redundancy of Potential Command”.

Internal complexity brought about by requisite variety allows for the emergence and re-emergence of different configurations in response to changing events. The important implication being that “’ living,’ self-organizing systems, including social systems of all types, depending on their internal complexity and inherent redundancy for resilience and long-term viability”.

Distributing and determining by function and relevant knowledge rather than by authority assigned by rank and seniority the processes of decision-making across a network-like organizational structure is termed ”Heterarchy” The potential for so-called “command” is thus distributed, or made redundant, over a large number of components and its location shifts constantly within the network. It is not permanently localized and no fixed vertical hierarchy of authority is discernible. 

Fuller’s definition of a system can be said to transverse across the chasm between the solely conceptual and the countless entities with distinct and independent existence within our universe, laying between that which is conceivable but which is not an entity within our universe and that which may perhaps be an entity, but that is not conceivable. In total, what we call our reality. It brings systems, conceptually defined, to a state of reality within which Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics can be and by necessity needs to be applied.  

The seemingly, abstract, remote and perhaps even, esoteric concepts of variety, ultrastability, redundancy of potential command, synergy and self-organization are all related or are constrained together describing and arguably determining the characteristics of regulating mechanisms that underlie external behavior of complex systems. The practical implication of which are far-reaching and significant not only in that they shape the conduct of human affairs but they could be crucial in resolving the many sustainability-related challenges we are facing. The challenge of all interventions in any socio-ecosystemic domain would be then to keep an open, dynamic stance, working in tandem with the self-organizing properties of the system, rather than inadvertently destroying them. 




Monday, September 2, 2019

Finding Our Way Through Complexity and Uncertainty


The last post looked at Michael Ben-Eli’s paper, ”Understanding Systems”, a part of Sustainability Laboratory’s online course on Systems Thinking and Systems Modeling. This should have been said then, the Understanding Systems paper needs to be read, even more so than this blog post series. This is only my interpretation, far more likely subject to error, jumbled with alternative and added thoughts to tie it to New Community Paradigms. The paper by Ben-Eli has far more insights by Stafford Beer, Ross Ashby and others not included here.

The previous post was able to fully define the concept of ”system”, based on the insights in ”Understanding Systems”, solely through mutually supporting abstract concepts without referring to anything physical. There wasn't any need for particularity of specific instances. ”Organization” could be seen as a concept without the need for reference to a specific organization or particular type. Self-organization arose from the further internal interactions of mutually supporting concepts. There was an inference, with the mention of patterns, to our more immediate sensory world but that world is a veil behind which the concept of patterns lay.

That conceptual reality, however, is not the one that we have to survive, strive and succeed in. Even if the interactions within such conceptual reality are constrained seamlessly, weaving together effortlessly, they are hidden from our own hard-knock reality by a veil of complexity, uncertainty, and randomness and must be divined from the clues made apparent when we look for them.

The key to piercing the veil so as to glimpse at a system’s internal workings is to see the  same logic found in the circuitry in man-made, automatic, error-control mechanisms as being analogous to the homeostatic logic found in physiological structures that work to maintain specific physiological values such as body temperature, body fluid composition, blood pressure, blood sugar level, etc., by triggering an appropriate corrective action when deviations occur from a norm. 

Cybernetics focuses specifically on understanding the often obscured dynamics of a systems’ internal structures and the mechanisms that maintain its dynamic organization invariant.  The term “cybernetics” denotes the role of feedback mechanisms in processes of regulation and control. The number of possible distinctions related to a system’s internal states in cybernetics is termed “variety”. 

Norbert Wiener, the first pioneer in the field, and his colleagues established, I am going to say the immutable connection between the observable behavior of a system or it's output and the internal structure of a system in a 1943 paper, Behavior Purpose and Teleology. 

First, by clarifying the question of purposive behavior by tying a system’s behavior to its specific internal structure which helped to remove the need of “vitalism,” or as in the last post ”vital force”, to explain the special qualities of living systems. Second, by making it clear that to modify a system’s behavior change must be made to the system’s core structure rather than being directed at the behavior of the system. 

Wiener defined cybernetics as “the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” highlighting two key ideas. One is establishing the validity of the theory for both man-made devices and living systems. Two, classifying  “control” and “communication” as one, signifying the role of information in processes of control and regulation. 

What then are the structures and mechanisms of a system by which it mediates its operation, viability, performance, and by which it determines how the system can regulate itself? How it can self-organize and how it can adapt and evolve?

Regulatory processes mediate between the factors interacting for particular outcomes or behaviors binding a system together so as to preserve (constrain) its singular identity. ”Control” then is not meant to be considered as a restricting concept.

Regulation in the cybernetic model is expressed in the context of a system’s capacity to maintain equilibrium states in the face of disturbances from an environment with which it interacts. Regulation can then be regarded as the manifestation of a system’s adaptive capacity.

Cybernetics extents the concept of regulation to evolutionary processes, by which a system can actually transform into a new entity with a higher regulation potency. Amplifying potential variety by processes such as coalition formation, highlighting the importance of cooperation in evolution as has been demonstrated by anthropologists looking at the work of Elinor Ostrom.

The number of different states that a system in the real-world can assume or its potential internal variety can be considered a measurement of complexity. Complexity then can be thought of as the number of possible distinctions by which information can be known or that can be determined about a given system, independent of its size. A human cell can be more complex than a large distribution warehouse.

The number of possible states or a variety of a system increases both rapidly and exponentially when the numbers of elements it contains get larger along with the number of interactions or connections between them, as well as the possibility for each interaction to assume more than a single value.

A quantity of variety, however, also produces a measure of uncertainty. Uncertainty or randomness relate to our perception of order or information about the different states of a system although contrariwise to the way order relates to the more deterministic regularities in a system’s behavior produced by a sequence of a system’s changing states which are detectable. 

The concepts of information and uncertainty are closely related having similar mathematical expressions but opposite signs. If uncertainty is at a maximum then all events in a given universe can occur with equal probability which means that no information is available and variety is at zero. Uncertainty then is a measure of disorder in a system or the level of entropy. 

The process of conveying an amount of information concerning one state out of the variety of all the possible states of a system removes some uncertainty but never all of it, some of it is irreducible as Donella Meadows has pointed out. Too much information can be as bad as too little, making distinguishing relevant information from background noise impossible.

The behavior of whole systems, presumably those of sufficient complexity to require multiple subcomponents to achieve a high degree of internal variety, cannot be predicted from the behavior of the system’s parts alone due to the emergence of new, often unexpected properties. This perspective of an entire or whole system is termed synergy in Cybernetics. This ought to be assumed in all cases of social-systems design and addressed as they will find inevitable expression in social interactions. 

The concept of variety, along with the concepts of organization, entropy, and order, and I would add synergy, are at the nexus of our ideas involving physics, information theory and the philosophy of science. Such regularities that can be found within a system are produced by constraints imposed on that system’s potential variety or its internal structure as discussed in the last post. This the Understanding Systems paper asserts is profound.

The far more prevalent traditional reductionist analytical process, according to Ludwig von Bertalanffy, as cited by the Understanding Systems paper, sees interactions between elements being non-existent, or negligible in that they can supposedly be ignored for the purpose of analysis. According to a strictly reductionist perspective, understanding the world should be possible from constructing a picture of it by simply adding up detailed descriptions of its parts.  There is no need but to precisely measure what is immediately before us and sum it up. Ignoring the internal state of systems is to our peril as we are assailed with a world of complexity, uncertainty and randomness by which the reductionist perspective can be seen as myopic.

The gross deficiencies of currently prevailing top-down hierarchical command and control structures, including an inability to effectively address complexity, have been highlighted by many including Dee Hock, founder and CEO emeritus of VISA International, who advocated instead for a creative combination of “order” and “chaos” or what he termed “chaordic”. A more versatile and dynamic, but also more complex form of organization which allows for the ability to innovate and experiment. 

Switching from a mechanistic, reductionistic perspective of the world to a system view of the world opens one up hopefully but also understandably hesitantly to a variable, dynamic and interdependent reality, which demonstrates not only the need for a transformative shift in values, attitude, and actions in the world but also to pathways able to achieve them. 

Personally, I doubt that this would actually force acknowledgment of such a reality, as Ben-Eli asserts. We, humans, are far more resilient in our mental models than that, persuasion is still required. As he says elsewhere, individual observers can either keep or change their frame of reference. Even if they do change, they will likely have to come together with others in some manner to change their collective conclusions in order to change the system. Regardless, the implications of switching are still profound.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Still Learning to Understand Systems


Recently, I finished reading Michael Ben-Eli’s Module 1: ”Understanding Systems”, as the first part of the Sustainability Laboratory online course Systems Thinking and Systems Modeling presented in Kumu. My understanding of systems and what they are has been expanded with the newly discovered insight from Buckminster Fuller who defined a system as, “the first subdivision of universe into a conceivable entity,” as well as other concepts previously known of but now better integrated into my thinking.

This blog has in the past used Donella 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.”  Jay Forrester’s definition of a system, “a grouping of parts that operate together for a common purpose.”  Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows are both proponents of System Dynamics as is Sustainability Laboratory, both are members of my NCP Fantasy Systems Thinking Team and both can be seen as being on the ontological side of Systems Thinking’s internal debates. 

Those debates were addressed in the UK Systems Practice series and have also just finished reading Michael Jackson’s ”Systems Thinking, Creative Holism for Managers” one realizes now a bit better choosing which side to stand with isn't an either/or proposition. So I could also now add in Ross Ashby, British Cyberneticist, taking what I see as a more epistemological perspective who said that “a system is a source of information,” which I can agree with but it is not just that.  

However, most people for whom Systems Thinking is intended to help aren't going to care or be able to afford the time to pick a side which would likely do little to address the situation, mess or challenge, wicked or not, that they are facing. At the same time, it seems difficult to move ahead as an advocate for Systems Thinking, especially when applied to democratic community governance processes without having a firmer foundation.

The ideas expressed here are sourced primarily from the ”Understanding Systems” paper, though are solely my own interpretations based upon my readings. This series of blog posts is going to detour from consideration of more pragmatic applications of Systems Thinking to address some of the concepts raised in the paper.

One such concept is that of ”constraint” as a defining aspect of systems. A particular kind of outcome or behavior exhibited by a system is the result of a given pattern of interactions or reciprocal instances of cause and effect that are limited or constrained to that particular pattern. Since outcomes with systems are continuous we can refer to them as behaviors. Any given pattern of interactions representing a limiting or constraining factor, as an instance or set of circumstance, fact, or influence that produces only a particular kind of behavior and no other. A specific pattern of relations acts then as a constraint. Some specific set of relations defines their interaction in which a specific pattern of relations is being conserved. Similar to cause and effect with interactions, it is a reciprocal relationship.

The Information System Theory Project (ISTP) defines a system as “a set of mutually constrained events.” Events then can be seen as instances of interactions between factors or Meadows’ elements that over time are constrained into patterns. It may seem to become obvious but systems change dynamically over time through weaving patterns of interactions, constrained but not constricted, iterated but not identical, separated by time and space but that is actually hard to grasp conceptually except in a very general and limited sense. 

The existence of patterns in systems has been addressed before through the Systems Thinking Iceberg and the perspective of seeing Causal Loop Diagrams as depicting patterns of persistent causality.  This concept of constraint asserts those patterns are constrained to be what they are and not something else. This sounds very much to my mind like organized complexity which as Jane Jacobs taught us has application in the ”real” world.

Forrester’s definition of a system could then be changed  to ”a grouping of parts constrained to operate for a common purpose,” adding in Fuller, as a conceivable entity in the universe or to put it on an ontological footing, a thing capable of being imagined or mentally grasped as having distinct and independent existence.  

What we can’t know are all the interactions that make up such a pattern. It is impossible then to completely determine precisely how several different variables will act together when exposed at the same time to a number of different influences but we don't need to. The patterns generated by a system can produce a myriad of different behaviors separated over time and space but which can still be discernible as patterns. 

Living systems depend on the integrity of the organism viewed as a whole to reveal essential qualities that add up to more than the sum of their parts. A living system is engaged in a constant metabolic exchange with its world importing substances and releasing by-products of its activity into an environment which is also populated by many other species of equally active self-organizing systems. This synergistic, non-linear effect of self-organization by a system is not confined to biology being also applicable to the physical sciences including those underlying biological processes.

Self-organization, or what is termed spontaneous order in the social sciences (though that spontaneous order would still need the means to continue), is a process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of an initially disordered system according to Wikipedia. The process is spontaneous, not needing control by an external agent or arguably by a central or higher-level component of the system. My concern is that there can be a tendency to conflate self with ego or our own individual identities. Self-organizing is not organization by self (I) but of self  (the thing-in-itself) with no (ego-based) self needed to be involved. Ego-based self then is another emergent level which would have a different impact on the further emergence of social systems.

This means then that a self-organizing system requires that observers, or other fellow self-organizing systems, continuously change their frame of reference and even, as can be necessary, their conclusions.

In biology, the idea of a separate “vital force” used to explain the special qualities of living systems has been replaced with a new principle of an integrated concept of organization. The notion of systemic wholeness and that would include the notion of self-organization of that systemic wholeness leads the ”Understanding Systems” article to assert to the concept of “organization” as a basic unit of study.  

Organization, however, it seems to me, is being used in a particular manner here, as a noun in and of itself rather than as a category of something other things. Businesses, governments, social clubs are examples that fit under the category organization but organization here can be defined as a noun without any reference to a specific example. It is not defining a thing but a state in which a system or complex or complicated entity exists similar to temperature or entropy. 

An organization or state of organization is created from a set of elements which form a specific pattern of relations acting as a constraint, limiting the number of conceivable configurations manifested as distinct when the field of possibilities is reduced to a unique one. 

Groups of elements or factors interact among themselves and across different levels of organization, settling into stable configurations, though strictly only temporarily, as self-preserving forms that are adapted to the constraints of their specific context. Ben-Eli asserts that this is the inevitable consequence of the idea of “interaction” itself and that the significance of this essential dynamism cannot be overemphasized.

An ”organization” becomes a particular structure embodied in sets of relations when some specific relation defines the interaction of the elements or when a specific pattern of relations is being conserved. That is then manifested as a system structure or as a distinct organization as we normally understand the word. 

Organisms, or living system entities, can be viewed as organizations and the invitation can then be made to regard organizations, seemingly referring to human-generated, socially defined examples as organisms. But this, in my view, can only be taken so far because the organizations built by humans are invariably complicated and not complex as arise in nature.

The concept of organization by general system theory was a new abstraction and paradigm shift that stressed the significance of underlying structures to the representation and understanding of a system’s behavior. A self-organizing system then is an “open” system which can continue exhibiting dynamic, self-organizing characteristics by maintaining or increasing what Ben-Eli termed its ”manifestation of organization and order”, which it can do as long as it has a sufficient level of redundancy, and the system’s internal complexity is preserved.  It is internal complexity which allows for the emergence and re-emergence of different configurations in response to changing events. Self-organizing “living,” systems such as we are, including social systems of all types, depending on their internal complexity and inherent redundancy for resilience and long-term viability. More concepts to be examined in the next post.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

ABCD Beyond The Neighbourhood for the Neighbourhood


Continuing from the last post on hydraulics and community, in which Mick Ward, Chief Officer, Transformation and Innovation, Adults and Health, Leeds City Council was introduced, in his second article on proliferating Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) throughout Leeds, England, Ward related a significant learning moment for him in a quote from the Time Banks founder Edgar Cahn:

“No society has the money to buy, at market prices, what it takes to raise children, make a neighborhood safe, care for the elderly, make democracy work or address systemic injustices….. The only way the world is going to address social problems is by enlisting the very people now classified as ‘clients’ and ‘consumers’ converting them into co-workers, partners and rebuilders of the core economy”. 

Ward could be seen as alluding to the purpose of moving towards an ABCD oriented community governance system. As Cormac Russell and John McKnight have discussed, an ABCD approach seeks to enlist so-called ‘clients’ and ‘consumer as co-workers, partners and builders of their own community. ABCD emphasizes relationships as the primary means of exchange and of change in community rather than data and money.  The ABCD learning process then is one that values what goes on between the people making up the community emerging as Jane Jacobs’ organized complexity. Government institutions and many Third Sector based institutions work to accomplish stated goals and objectives and see the community as disaggregated individuals or closer to the concept of disorganized complexity. Community governance seems the best term here as it implies direct involvement of the community (as opposed to community building or community development which could be imposed) but, at least in my view, which may or may not include the existing political authority. 

Following a Systems Thinking perspective from previous posts, ABCD is a system, community is a system, and (a form of) governance is a system. Anything comprised of elements, factors, things, people that are in relationship to each other through some type of connections for a purpose or function is a system.  My hypothesis is that a systemic pathway to ABCD oriented community governance would involve Chris ArgyrisDouble Loop Learning, looked at before but at a public institutional level (Kumu Project revised July 2019) not community or ABCD, and Small World Networking.

This community transitioning can be opposed or subverted, intentionally or unintentionally. ABCD may be seen, or actually be based on past institutional practices, as yet another way for a jurisdiction to negate its responsibilities or as a threat to existing services and roles delivering cuts. Even those politicians or existing service providers (Third Sector) doing good work in other forms of community development or a community-based service might argue, that there is no need to make changes toward an ABCD approach but despite any good intentions, it is still not at the level of true ABCD.

As Ward says, it is essential not to underestimate the degree of change that would be required for any political jurisdiction, such as a Local Authority, or any health and wellbeing system operating within that political jurisdiction, transitioning towards ABCD based community governance. This would be hard enough with an institutional leadership that was accommodating. One established by an entrenched system would be far harder to change. 

Moving a community as a whole toward ABCD with an existing political or community leadership and management is far more often than not a substantially very different place from where they start. It includes making a seismic shift away from what Ward termed ‘service land’ in how the needs of the community population are met. 

Ward contends that a combined culture of ABCD and of Strength-Based Social Care in the city of Leeds is positively influencing how other services work together and their relation to the individuals whom they support. There is evidence that ABCD/Strength-Based Social Care (both?) reduce demand on these services but other early intervention/prevention/self-management programs work as well. One question is how closely is Strength Based Social Care is to truly community-based ABCD?  How do they intermediate? They seem obviously closer in accommodation but can’t be exact, one being from outside the community.

In Leeds, ABCD worked particularly well regarding people with mental health needs and to a certain extent with long term conditions but less well with people with a Learning Disability or a significant physical or sensory impairment. This could be considered a direct first-order change. 

Those people with a long term condition or regular ill health are, research indicates according to Ward, less likely to volunteer. Less known is the extent of informal community contributions which could be said are at the heart of ABCD. 

This focus to feedback into the community is a second order change which ABCD does encourage by having commissioners, service practitioners and communities simply support, good neighborliness which seems a natural extension of an ABCD vision but there is a substantial second order change needed in the structure of community governance to bring about the full level of first-order change desired (reinforcing feedback) which would be greater participation in the community and its affairs.

Making democracy work and addressing systemic injustices are at a second order level, which I would argue is at a different level than first-order level community-based helping-others with helping-ourselves-together programs. ”Community activism” might depend on how you define it. There is a deep potential relationship between the two levels that can be developed but that is not assured.

A strength of ABCD, Wards asserts, are communities themselves identifying issues and therefore solutions, arguably most acceptable to the particular community in question. There isn't necessarily a direct relationship though between identifying an issue and devising a viable solution, both effective and adequately efficient and which seeks to avoid or agilely respond to unintended consequences. Especially if civic-level decisions involve other communities, with possibly competing interests, within the same political jurisdiction.

Ward seems to recognize that even ABCD favorable communities may not always be fully inclusive for all, particularly for Adults and Health with care and support needs. This only gets worse with clique communities,  especially those that have become entrenched systems.

Ward argues, along with Cormac Russell, that evaluating an ABCD process requires moving away from traditional top-down summative and formative evaluation processes and moving towards a developmental and emancipatory learning process. ABCD evaluation, therefore, is not about simply counting numbers of people with which a program interacts. It is about nurturing and celebrating the participation and contributions that both strengthen community life and that provide those connections known to be so valuable. Despite much talk of focusing on ABCD based outcomes, as highlighted in part 1 of Ward’s articles, reporting is still focused to a large extent on more traditional outputs and numbers, looking at only a small part of the system.  Getting past that point, however, all too often involves convincing those still using standard metrics unless other pathways are found.

Ward, seems to put the responsibility on the ABCD Pathfinders for addressing what could be considered a key element of a mid-term strategy to implement ABCD-based governance throughout all communities by asking them to ensure that they fully include and engage with people with care and support needs (especially people with a Learning Disability). At the same time asking them to continue to work with Third Sector and statutory specialist services providers which support specific and often segregated groups, be they Learning Disability, Mental Health, Physical and Sensory Impairment, Drugs & Alcohol or Homelessness to work in an Asset Based manner by helping them connect the people they work with to their local neighborhoods and connect their neighborhoods to them.

Ward acknowledges that ABCD is not an alternative to replace the direct provision of personal care, medical support and other higher need interventions. What ABCD objects to is when those services usurp community asset-based functions. Recognizing the importance of the broad range of services in the world of health and wellbeing, and the importance of continuing to fund those services, he also acknowledges the current financial climate can be challenging as competition for funds becomes stringent. Asserting that funding for ABCD is relatively small compared to the cost of these core services and therefore justifies first call on what Ward refers to as ”a small top slice” on any available additional monies may not always be persuasive despite being critical to the proliferation of ABCD. Merely recognizing that they will need to continue to be funded alongside ABCD work may not be enough. Other means of leveraging the system of which ABCD is a part would then need to be devised.

There is a debate then which Ward suggests needs to continue to maintain a high profile of good ABCD practice but it's important then to understand other models or systems and how they fit into the larger system of which ABCD is a part. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Systems Problems vs Community Struggles - ABCD and Systems Thinking


This post will continue to attempt to understand differences between Systems Thinking and Asset Based Community Development while maintaining an appreciation that both have a desire to attain similar beneficial outcomes in mind, that both have their limitations and that perhaps each can help the other in addressing those limitations. This is still at the explore and experiment stage.

In a system, all the elements, factors, or components making up that system are related to each other and, more importantly, to the purpose or function of that system. A system of civic governance consists of conjoined systems, related by intended design, of institutional resources and of community assets. These cannot only have different purposes or functions, but they can also be constituted structurally different, complicated for a government institution and complex for a community, in their means of addressing such purposes. 

First, though, I have an issue with the way the term ”scale” in Mick Ward’s (introduced last post) and other ABCD articles is portrayed,  but with the over-popularization of the term muddying the definition. The blog post, ABCD and Scaling Carrying Capacity pt 2 proposed three types of applied or actualized scale - inherent, induced and imposed to suggest a common basis for usage.

Proliferate is to my mind actually closer to what people often mean when they refer to ”scaling up” or ”industrialized”. Scaling in a mathematical sense involves some inherent relationship between relevant factors, not merely an exponential increase in arbitrary marketing metrics. Scaling then is best represented by inherent scaling or how Professor Geoffrey West uses it in comparing the infrastructure of cities or the metabolism of animals.

Scaling can be used by entities such as nonprofits, who seek to induce scale to achieve more bang for the budgeted buck, if they recognize that an increase in one aspect, say number of malaria nets, may be able to be implemented with a relatively smaller increase or even decrease in another related aspect, say costs. However, they need to be wary, and this is especially applicable to situations of imposed scaling, where the increase or enhancement in one aspect of the system diminishes not only another aspect of that system but the entire system itself. 

When one system, a government institution, imposes for their own purposes, an external solution on another system, a community, in order to scale some aspect, the positive feedback in one area can create negative feedback in others, including components of community self-organization, self-governance and self-management. It very often detrimental impacts the entire complex community system which is made apparent in the continuing and increasing difficulties assailing the members of that community and a worsening inability to address those difficulties.

ABCD does scale, simply at an induced, linear, one to one ratio, necessary to maintain effectiveness. While any externally imposed efficiency by institutions can be seen as detrimental, my question or concern is whether ABCD can be expanded in such a manner beyond a certain limit, say set by Dunbar’s number? Does ABCD begin to naturally scale sub-linearly when extended beyond a certain limit diminishing impact? If so, are there means to extend that limit systemically? One possible means being through Elinor Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development Framework? ABCD is seen by NCP as a systemic means of support for Ostrom’s Commons.

When endeavoring to bridge Systems Thinking with Asset Based Community Development language, terms and words can become a hindrance. Specific terms may have operational definitions within a particular discipline that can be different from vernacular usage or at least more restricted, not to mention across disciplines. Precision in application or at least agreed upon usage is important when it is necessary to differentiate so as to understand the unique aspects of each area or domain. One set of such words that will be used here for both domains includes - problems, difficulties, struggles, situations, and messes.

A problem is a matter or situation that is seen as unwelcome or harmful that needs to be dealt with and overcome. This determination is meant to be objective. A difficulty is a trouble for someone or a strain on them, subjectively requiring a struggle, which in some instances may be a better word choice than difficulty. A doctor has a medical problem when trying to determine what is wrong with a patient but the patient has difficulty with their health with which they are struggling. Systems thinking deals with problems and messes. ABCD deals with difficulties and struggles.

Managers often deal with other people’s problems either as groups and classes of people or with some professions as individuals.  A doctor might have to deal with numerous medical problems in a community setting, or what Russell Ackoff called “Messes” when applied to management, making the situation increasingly complex and addressing the struggles of others all the harder. Change can occur over time in the combination of the mix of problems that a manager needs to deal with but for a particular person directly impacted the difficulty remains. Managers may take on a ”problem with problems” strategy thrown at them in bunches or as messes using metrics in achieving objectives rather than focusing on people’s specific difficulties.

This managerial approach can work to an extent with business or government institutions because the solutions devised are ”good enough” for a wide swath of customers or clients. Enough to hold on to market share or to be reelected. It is not however at the level of specific solutions or what in Disruptive Innovation is referred to as Job-To-Be-Done needed by a specific person or group. A specified creative solution though can often be fully utilized by many people because the commonality is based on common needs and not market determined products or services.

People may find themselves to be dealing with their own “personal problems” as self-diminishing difficulties, not only is the difficulty persistent but its lack of resolution diminishes over time one’s ability to address it. Furthermore, difficulties like problems come in intertwined bunches but their cumulative effect is detrimental to the person (subject), not merely the situation. 

ABCD focuses on people inspiring them to focus on their strengths collectively.  This “what’s strong, not wrong” approach works both collectively and individually. For both those for whom it works individually and for communities it can be seen as an enhancement of Carrying Capacity. Both Cormac Russell and I have written about Carrying Capacity extending it to human communities. Carrying Capacity normally refers to populations, usually animal populations but each individual in that population contributes. Upon further reflection though, I believe Carrying Capacity needs to be better related and differentiated from Social Capital than I have done in the past. 

Carrying capacity is systemically, the aggregated ability to gather food, build shelter or protect family by members of a population within an environment. The Carrying Capacity for a population is the summation of individual members but unlike many animal populations, humans in a community can contribute to Carrying Capacity to a far greater extent individually to other members of the community.

The community as a whole has another means of extending overall Carrying Capacity or what could be considered a derivative and that is leveraging the collective Social Capital of its members. Humans can get other humans (and domesticated animals) to do things for them. Social Capital can leverage Carrying Capacity but to my mind is also likely based on Carrying Capacity in some manner so is there an overall limit?

This becomes more relevant if two or more communities are competing in the same civic realm for resources, especially if one is what has been termed a Clique Community and the other is a Colony Community but it is often not limited to only these two. Usually, within a particular civic space in this instance of the jurisdiction of a Local Government Authority in Leeds, there is a community laying, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally, between the two.

Is it possible to become completely dependent upon systems of Social Capital and lose connection with any sense of Community-based Carrying Capacity, as might happen with a clique community? Is it possible for a colony community to transition from a restricted Carrying Capacity, due to imposed marginalization, to generate sufficient Social Capital leveraging to make changes to an institutional system outside of the community? As a colony community might perhaps be persuaded to attempt.

Systems thinking should still though be able to help the manager or doctor or caseworker deal with problems and messes so that they are better suited to help people deal with their own difficulties and struggles. Systems Thinking only approaches but does not, however, achieve the direct implementation of a solution or mitigation of a specific difficulty faced by a specific person or group of persons. It is the Knowing-Doing Gap that has been discussed before. Difficulties do get addressed all the time but it’s usually not Systems Thinking taking the final step. That invariably requires a different skill set be it a medical professional or somebody delivering hot meals to the housebound. How the community self-organizes around that and moves to self-determination is where ABCD comes in recognizing that self here is not personal but the community as a whole. 

One strategy with the appearance of great potential is “Strategic Doing” but that will have to wait for further examination. For now, it is still necessary to find a means of creating a deeper link between Systems Thinking and ABCD. One might be suggested from the thoughts of two persons, Cormac Russell of Nurture Development and John Atkinson of Heart of the Art. Together, they challenge us to lead community as a living system in a manner that attains empathy, not merely sympathy. Cormac provides a model, an inspirational model that practically may never be achieved but nevertheless should still be continuously strived towards.

“Imagine a world where institutions did more to support interdependence at the centre of community life, especially with citizens most vulnerable to not having their gifts seen or received…"

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Hydraulics and Community - A Systems Thinking Perspective


In the last post, Cormac Russell and John McKnight used a hydraulic mechanism as a simple form of a closed system to serve as a simile explaining in a clear, understandable manner the asymmetry of the power dynamic between communities and institutions conjoined in a system of civic governance from an ABCD perspective. This post will look at that same system based on the Kumu Presentation Community Assets versus Institutional Resources using Causal Loop Diagrams which takes more of a Systems Thinking perspective and considers differences between the two.

ABCD and New Community Paradigms (NCP) are in agreement with most of the premises of the hydraulics and community assets system. Both see city leaders claiming to want their residents to see local government as trustworthy and reliable but relegating the role of a citizen to what happens after the city’s professionals’ work is completed.  A perfect example of the hydraulic relationship, an inversion of democracy, the role of professionals goes up, the role of citizens goes down.

Both agree components of community function have been expropriated by institutions or appropriated by the acquiescence of communities so that now people think that more police equals more safety and that more hospitals equal more health. This is illogical from a Systems Thinking perspective as well. Institutional entities define themselves and justify ever increasing budgets by consistently saying they need more funds to deal with all the different problems that the very systems that they propagated helped to create. Their structural role and legacy in the system allow them to sustain that system and the system in turn to sustain them. 

Cormac and John provided three successful examples of taking back collective responsibility for community functions though all were more project based than systems based and all depended upon viable systems being in place to make them possible.

The manager of a Swedish housing development depended upon a system of  support from community builders, connectors at the lunch, as well as welcomers and askers in the neighborhood. Cincinnati Starfire, created enterprise space which could feedback to participants own neighborhoods with resources and money effectively becoming community builders but it was filled with an existing economic and social system. Henry Moore believed that the community had all kinds of functions that could be performed without the city having to do the work. The community took up the challenge and they did the work themselves based on their own existing social system.

There is, however, an example of ABCD being applied on a more systemic basis that is told by Mick Ward, Chief Officer, Transformation and Innovation, Adults and Health, Leeds City Council.  He sets out a history of community development and organizing that gave rise to ABCD in the City of Leeds, England but they started with a strong systemic foundation.

Leeds had been prioritizing tackling loneliness, for older people especially, for many years before adopting ABCD. They had already established Neighbourhood Networks before hearing about ABCD. They then came across Cormac Russell speaking and saw a means to support older people to be even more connected to where they lived.

According to Cormac, the growth of loneliness in modern societies has been increasing since leaving more rural areas for cities leading to the rise of programmatic (and yes, systematic) interventions as loneliness becomes the new pathology being targeted by institutions. More pertinent, can this be reversed by simply changing the direction of the closed system and how does one go about doing that?

This erosion follows the evolution of consumerism shifting to the idea of a consumer society in which one could simply buy what one wants to be produced even that which was formerly the responsibility of the community and put it into the marketplace. We handed over community functions at which we are best competent and capable to perform by employing face-to-face relationship with each other by outsourcing to the institutional realm.

Institutions are closer to being closed systems, similar to a hydraulic system, created as means of control or applied top down constraint. Communities, however, are open systems. Their processes are not only unseen and not understood, they are nonlinear.

Leeds began using a ‘classic’ ABCD framework of establishing a Community Builder in the neighborhood, who identified, enthused and supported community connectors. Additionally, some “small sparks” funding was provided and community-led asset maps were developed. Early successes demonstrated the approach was worth pursuing in three Neighborhood Networks in Leeds which were part of their previously established ‘Senior Network Support (SeNS) Project’. 

This could have only been possible with  strong community and political support from the leadership of the Leeds City Council and the Health and Wellbeing Board approving funding increase the pathfinder sites, a dedicated post in LCC to commission and support the work, ABCD training both for the pathfinders and those wanting to develop ABCD approaches, supporting ABCD catalysts further supporting emerging ABCD sites so as to promote ABCD across the city. Still, 12 sites are a long way from covering all of Leeds with over 140 neighborhoods. While this can only be considered a success but can it, using Ward’s term, be successfully proliferated across the entirety of the City of Leeds on this same basis?

Ward wants to expand ABCD as an ‘approach, or ‘way of working’ across Third Sector organizations and services, seeing an opportunity to work with a large range of organizations in the city to move towards a more asset-based approach in their day to day work. This would put ABCD within the civic realm between community and institutions. 

It is not expected though that these organizations, not being ‘pure ABCD’, would be able to use the full ABCD framework as they tend to be city wide-based, rather than neighborhood-based and therefore not as likely to really dive deep and nurture all the potential assets and functions in a community. This suggests then that there is still a need for a more pure ABCD to be established in civil society, perhaps becoming a means of defining civil society, but outside the civic realm, maintaining its independence.  Can ABCD then become a significant part of the civil society’s foundation for the city’s civic realm and how does it do this across all sectors, economic, political and demographic making up the City of Leeds or anywhere else? 

I have to admit to being skeptical of Cormac and John’s answer as to how this could be addressed by the institutional realm lead by stepping back.  It seems to assume that institutions, those in power within those institutions and most importantly, the systems establishing and sustaining those institutions will locate some of that appropriated authority back into community life again voluntarily. Perhaps if you are lucky enough to live in Leeds but I have less hope for most places entrenched institutional power.

I have little faith in depending on the accountability and trustworthiness of institutional leaders. Getting even regular folk in our communities to see that people in our institutions, our schools, our police departments, our hospitals, are at their limits, in truth over their limits, and are becoming counterproductive because of all the functions we have given can be arduous. How a community could be resurrected by taking on functions that are the strength of the social contract of neighborhoods in our towns seems a better question but the answer will at least in part be systemic.

The means, Cormac and John say, is stepping forward into our own power, our collective cultural power with the agreement that through social contract there are certain things teachers, police officers and healthcare professionals are not going to do. Responsibilities that we decide to take back as community. Those social contracts however needs to be reestablished under the current systems which are firmly entrenched and will likely need some form of systemic disruption that must be innovative in nature rather than incremental but not lose sight of the purer ABCD vision.

What the Causal Loop Diagrams of the systems presentation reveals are four possible pathways. 

First path, system maintains its current configuration placing institutional power in a dominant position. Under the current configuration, institutional power has a decided, structural advantage which is made even more resilient through a variety of what Systems Thinking refers to a systems archetypes. Persistent patterns of causality arising from the interaction of causal loops that entrench the system in a manner which is exceedingly constrained but still resilient despite being seen as being detrimental.

Second, both community assets and institutional resources could be reconfigured so that each has a negative influence over the other. 

Third, a more positive configuration initiated as suggested by Cormac and John and made real to a large extent by the City of Leeds. The reverse pushing the other way to increase community assets by outside forces against institutions also requires energy but the system isn't configured to work either in effectively or efficiently in this manner. 

Finally, a fourth path based on changes to be initiated by the community itself with or without institutional cooperation. The energy though required to push up or down in either direction does not come from either of the pistons or external sources but must be found in the configuration or structure of the entire system. It is doubtful though, in my view, that either an ABCD approach alone or a systems approach alone could be successful. 

Past Posts