This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.


It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.


It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.


Sunday, 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…"

Past Posts