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.


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