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, 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. 

Past Posts