Facilitating Socio-Economic Development

Related ecosystems (ECO)

“Jobs liked to tell the story- and he did so to his team that day- about how everything that he had done correctly had required a moment when he hit the rewind button. In each case he had to rework something that he discovered was not perfect. He talked about doing it on Toy Story, when the character of Woody had evolved into being a jerk, and on a couple of occasions with the original Macintosh. “If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later,” he said. “That’s what other companies do.”
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs

 

The previous post, Developing St. Petersburg, outlined the history of the Southside St. Petersburg CRA and posed the question about the effectiveness of the underlying economic development policies and practices employed, as well as the goals, theories and assumptions on which they are based.

It suggested that the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework lays the theoretical groundwork that can be used to design a successful redevelopment initiative. This post explains key terms of the IAD Framework and relates them to overall goals of sustainability and ownership, setting the stage to make recommendations on priorities, principles and tools for shaping policy and program implementation.

Five Key Terms of The IAD Framework

Institutions

Institutions are the rules used by individuals in a wide diversity of repeated situations that they confront in life; they help or hinder the efforts of individuals to be optimally productive in the activities they undertake with others. Institutions key aspect is their shared rules regarding what actions individuals must take, must not take, or are permitted to take in particular situations. By constraining behavior, institutions increase order and predictability.

E.g.: baseball; the interstate highway system; commercial airplane operation; Starbucks and innovation.

It is now widely accepted that the main development problem is “missing institutions” or “perverse institutions” instead of “missing money.” No matter how well-intentioned those providing assistance are, or how many resources are transferred, development will occur only if political and economic institutions generate incentives that facilitate individuals’ achievement of development goals.

Incentives

In the IAF, the term incentive means the rewards and punishments that individuals believe to be related to their actions and those of others. Perceived rewards and punishments can motivate individuals to take actions that are productive for all involved. Perverse incentives, on the other hand, lead individuals to avoid engaging in mutually productive outcomes or to take actions that are generally harmful for others.

Citizens often face incentives that make it difficult to invest in economic activities, to provide public goods, to manage common pool resources and generally to arrive at mutually beneficial day-to-day arrangements. Thus, a core problem of development assistance is to understand the structure of the incentives generated within these situations.

Where people themselves cannot change incentives, government policies potentially can. However, incentives at the policy level may obstruct institutional reforms needed to improve economic, social, and political conditions.

Development

Meaningful progress or development implies not only the progressive meeting of basic material requirements of all, but also the conditions and institutions consistent with respect for basic human rights.

According to Sida, development can be defined as those actions taken by donors and recipients intended to further two distinct outcomes:

  • Poverty reduction, and
  • Freedom.

There are six political priorities:

  1. Democracy;
  2. Human rights;
  3. Gender equality and
  4. Women’s role in development;
  5. Environmental sustainability;
  6. Climate change. (Sida Development Assistance – A Presentation)

Well-being

The process of development is one in which individuals increase their well-being by solving more collective-action problems more effectively through the design and use of institutions
at many scales.

A key message of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress is that we should shift our emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being. Well-being is multi-dimensional. The key dimensions that should be taken into account simultaneously are:

  1. Material living standards (income, consumption and wealth);
  2. Health;
  3. Education;
  4. Personal activities including work;
  5. Political voice and governance;
  6. Social connections and relationships;
  7. Environment (present and future conditions);
  8. Security, of an economic as well as physical nature.

Information relevant to valuing quality of life includes measures of people’s “functionings” and freedoms. In effect, what really matters are the capabilities of people, that is, the extent of their opportunity set and of their freedom to choose among this set, the life they value. There is a consensus that quality of life depends on people’s health and education, their everyday activities (that include the right to a decent job and housing), their participation in the political process, the social and natural environment in which they live, and the factors shaping their personal and economic security.

Collective-action situations

Collective-action situations lie at the center of development. A collective-action situation a desired joint outcome requires the input of several individuals. Almost all productive relationships involve some form of collective action. For example, while one person can produce agricultural products from a single, small agricultural plot, the amount of agricultural product per amount of input is greatly enhanced by creating diverse forms of teamwork through family, community, or corporate arrangements to increase the size of the enterprise. Similar benefits of increasing the number of participants who bring different skills and resources occur in almost all manufacturing or service activities. Collective-action situations become collective-action problems whenever a lack of motivation and/or missing or asymmetric information generates incentives that prevents individuals from resolving a collective action situation. In other words, in order to achieve a benefit that helps the members of the group, some portion of these people must accept a risk of paying extra for a benefit shared by all. Simply creating a public bureaucracy to provide public goods or protect natural resources doesn’t automatically solve the collective-action problem.

Rather than think about linkages among action situations involved in development assistance as a “chain of aid delivery,” we believe it is more advantageous to think about a set of nested situations that may take on any of a variety of productive or unproductive relationships. The chain-like fashion of aid delivery does not fully reveal the varied institutional contexts within which the actors in their situations are connected.

Ownership

The concept of “development” as a goal has become “sustainable development.” Sustainable development focuses on the two concepts of sustainability AND ownership.

Sustainability refers to the longevity of development aid’s effects, rather than the existence of particular projects or activities.

Ownership requires greater participation and responsibility on the part of aid recipients and a decrease in a donor’s authority over their own aid packages.

To be effective and sustainable, an intervention should incorporate the local knowledge about the needs, preferences, and problems of target beneficiaries that only they themselves possess. Access to this localized knowledge requires active beneficiary ownership – meaning a role in all four aspects of ownership – rather than just the consumption of whatever is produced. By making investment in these processes, beneficiaries are not simply consumers of someone else’s largesse. They have had to articulate their own preferences and allocate their own resources.

Four dimensions of ownership have been identified:

  1. Enunciating demand: Participation in provision by articulating what asset, project, or program is needed and deciding how resources should be mobilized.
  2. Making a tangible contribution: Participation in production by making tangible contributions. Time, effort, and other resources contributed to production are a costly signal that beneficiaries expect to derive benefits from a project.
  3. Obtaining benefits: Participation in consumption of the benefits if the project is successful and in a share of responsibility if the project fails.
  4. Sharing responsibility for long-term continuation or non-continuation of a project: Participation in decisions related to the alienation of the rights to a project (the decision to continue or not continue a project once it has been initiated).

     

Institutional Analysis

Many institutions foster incentives that undermine their goal of sustainable development. Some options that may help development agencies ameliorate some of the perverse incentives are:

  1. Awareness of the role of incentives in underpinning aid effectiveness and sustainability.
    1. Most individuals with experience in development cooperation realize that incentives underpin aid effectiveness and sustainability.
    2. A more explicit and systematic understanding of institutions and the incentives that emerge within particular organizational structures, as well as mechanisms for transmitting that knowledge, are crucial to improve an aid agency’s effectiveness.
    3. The only way that an understanding of incentives will lead to better development assistance is through the determination of an agency’s own staff to create rules that promote “good” incentives.
  2. The Nature of the Good
    1. A development agency should understand the wider incentives involved in the underlying core good as well as the more narrowly focused incentives related to its activities.
    2. Such an understanding, coupled with a desire for sustainable results, would most likely exclude most projects that primarily involve infrastructure provision and move the agency toward institution building.
  3. Ownership and Sustainability
    1. Many agencies now voice a strong concern for the sustainability of development cooperation. A long-term positive change is a better investment of resources than more temporary results.
    2. Such agencies seek to improve the outcomes related to its efforts in development cooperation by giving ownership of aid to recipients. Including recipients and beneficiaries in true ownership can help solve some of the severe information and motivational problems in development.
    3. But this is not a sufficient condition to ensure sustainability. Motivational and information problems in aid are very deeply embedded and no type of development cooperation is free from powerful perverse incentives.
    4. Given aid’s complexity regarding relationships and incentives, it is important that an essential first step is that all participants involved in an aid project to understand what the terms ownership and sustainability mean in practice. Aid agencies need to allow sufficient opportunities for the owner(s) to contribute to the design, implementation and mid-course corrections of the project/program.
    5. A final step is to allow the owner full participation in the final evaluation of a project/program. Beneficiary owners need to (1) enunciate a demand for an aid, (2) allocate at least some of their own and other actor’s assets to the project or program so that they have a real stake in the way their own and other actor’s assets are used, (3) obtain real net benefits, and (4) have clear-cut responsibilities and be able to participate in decisions regarding continuance or ending of a project.
    6. We recommend that aid agencies focus on the concepts of responsibility and accountability as they relate to ownership. An agency should make clear what is intended to be sustainable, how development assistance helps produce sustainability, what time frame is being used, and how sustainability will be measured. Project planning documents should clearly identify the intended owners and include an analysis of the anticipated impact that this designation of ownership will have on sustainability.
  4. Encouraging Learning at the Individual and Organizational Levels
    1. Most development agency employees generally accountable for producing sustainable results.
    2. Evaluators should be instructed to examine the level of ownership in a project or program and the impact of ownership on sustainability should be seriously discussed.
  5. Putting Beneficiaries First
    1. Effective and sustainable development assistance must center on beneficiaries and the problems they face.
    2. Beneficiaries should take ownership of the developmental projects in all four senses of that term.
    3. To be sustainable, aid should address how beneficiaries relate to each other in dealing with diverse collective action situations.
    4. Without this deeper analysis and programs focused on institutional change to facilitate the long-term improvement in the lives of beneficiaries, aid is likely to provide only short-term benefits.

We are now in a position to begin making recommendations on priorities, principles and tools for shaping development policy and program implementation, the subject of the following post.

References

  1. Ostrom, E., 1990; Governing the Commons – The evolution of Institutions for Collective Action; Cambridge University Press.
  2. Ostrom, E. 2005; Understanding Institutional Diversity; Princeton University Press.
  3. Gibson, C., Andersson, K., et. al., 2005; The Samaritan’s Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid; Oxford University Press.
  4. CSSP.org; Institutional Analysis:
    Organizing Systems to Support Improved Outcomes for Children and Families – Lessons Learned from the Institutional Analysis
  5. Child Welfare Practice – Creating a Successful Climate for Change; Findings and conclusions from an institutional analysis.
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Developing St. Petersburg

A View of the Redeveloped St. Petersburg Waterfront

St. Petersburg

Developing a Florida City’s Reputation

St. Petersburg was recently named as one of the top 52 places in the world to visit in 2014 by The New York Times: “…St. Petersburg is anything but stationary. With a redeveloped waterfront, a stunning Dali Museum, and sophisticated restaurants in place, the downtown energy is now heading up historic Central Avenue…”

This remarkable transformation from a sleepy home for retirees chatting on green benches to an international destination was sparked by the “Intown” Redevelopment Plan.

First adopted by the City Council in 1982, it is the most recent manifestation of the city’s policies that promote rapid development to accommodate an influx of people responding to a seemingly endlessly repeated message of “…the nation’s playground, a southern garden of perpetual well-being.” (Sitler, 2006) The city focused “…on economic development and organizing the city to provide the ideal conditions for consumer consumption and tourist recreation” since the area’s first railroad terminus was located in the city at the junction of 1st Ave South and 9th St. in 1888. (Salmond 2004)

“Intown’s” success contrasts sharply with the stubborn economic depression experienced by the residents living on the south side of St. Petersburg who have effectively been excluded from participating in or benefiting from, not only the current growth in the downtown area, but also from the economic growth of St. Petersburg.

In a belated attempt to address the social and economic problems of the south side of the city, following the approval of Pinellas County Board of Commissioners 2012 Workshop Session: The Economic Impact of Poverty, members of the County Commissioners and St. Petersburg City council began taking steps to authorize the Southside St. Petersburg CRA.

The longstanding economic malaise of the near south side of the city, coupled with the inability of other redevelopment initiatives to reverse their respective areas’ economic ill health, prompts concerns about the ability of the new Southside CRA to stimulate the desired economic changes for its current residents versus gentrification of the area. They also raise questions about the effectiveness of the underlying economic development policies and practices employed, as well as the goals, theories and assumptions on which they are based.

This presentation suggests that the redevelopment initiative would have an increased likelihood of improving social and economic prosperity for the individuals living in the south side of St. Petersburg if it used the Workshop Toolkit, including the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) Framework, developed by the Ostroms and others. The Workshop Toolkit enables development aid providers to elucidate how the less-than-satisfactory local social and economic outcomes arise from the perverse incentives that are the result of the way the social and economic institutions, including the aid system itself, are organized.

In addition, the IAD framework suggests possible methods to further guide the design and implementation of urban redevelopment policies and projects by applying the knowledge gained from empiric research of the design and management of common-pool resources and community-based resource management.

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Leverage Points

Changing the System Part II

image

“The definition of lunacy,” Betalden adds, “is to keep doing what you’ve always done and expect different results.”

Now that we understand system, how to change the structure of the economic system to produce more of what we want, economic equality, and less of that which is undesirable, inequality?

One techniques to help understand how to change a system’s structure involves applying interventions at key leverage points, places in the system where a small change could lead to a large shift in behavior.  In “Thinking in Systems,” Donella Meadows enumerates, in ascending order, 12 key leverage points in terms of effect on the system.  Here are the top 6:

6.  Information flow – the structure of who does and does not have access to information.

Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction.   Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention.  It’s important that the missing feedback be restored to the right place and in compelling form.   There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions.   An example is the rapid draining of the Ogallala Aquifir, an underground pool of fresh water that stretches from Northern Texas to Wyoming.  Closely related is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, originally planned to pass thru areas of the Ogallala Aquifir, that is supposed to transport tar sands oil from Alberta to the oil refineries on the Gulf Coast of the US.

5.  Rules – incentives, punishments, constraints

The rules of the system define its scope, its boundaries, its degrees of freedom.  Constitutions are the strongest examples of social rules.  Laws, punishments, incentives and informal social arrangements are progressively weaker rules.  Rules are high leverage points.  Power over rules is real power.  If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules and who has the power over them.

4.  Self-organization – the power to add, change, evolve system structure

The power of self-organization (emergence) seems so wondrous that we tend to regard it as mysterious, miraculous, heaven sent.   Self-organization is basically a matter of an evolutionary raw material – a highly variable stock of information from which to select possible patterns – and a means for experimentation, for selecting and testing new patterns.  The intervention point here is obvious, but unpopular.  Encouraging variability and experimentation and diversity means “losing control.”  Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability.   It reqires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder.  These conditions that encourage self-organization often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures.  As a consequence, education systems may restrict the creative powers of children instead of stimulating those powers.  Economic policies may lean toward supporting established, powerful enterprises rather than upstart, new ones.  And many governments prefer their people not to be too self-organizing.

3.  Goals – the goal or purpose of a system

“Right there, the diversity-destroying consequence of the push for control demonstrates why the goal of a system is a leverage point superior to the self-organizing ability of a system.  If the goal is to bring more and more of the world under the control of one particular central planning system (Wal-Mart), then everything further down the list, physical stocks and flows, feedback loops, information flows, even self-organizing behavior, will be twisted to conform to that goal…

“What is the point of the game?  To grow, to increase market share, to bring the world (customers, suppliers, regulators) more and more under the control of the corporation so that its operations becomes ever more shielded from uncertainty…to engulf everything…It’s the goal of cancer, too…

“That’s what Ronald Reagan did, and we watched it happen.  Not long before he came into office, a president could say “Ask not what government can do for you, ask what you can do for the government,” and no one even laughed.  Reagan said over and over, the goal is not to get the people to help the government and not to get government to help people, but to get government off our backs.  One can argue, and I would, that larger system changes and the rise of corporate power over government let him get away with that.  But the thoroughness with which the public discourse is the United States and even the world has been changed since Ronald Reagan is testimony to the high leverage of articulating, meaning, repeating, standing up for, insisting upon, new system goals.” – Donella Meadows

2.  Paradigms – the mind-set out of which the system – its goals, structures, rules, delays, parameters – arises

Paradigms are the sources of systems.  From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come system goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows, and everything else about systems.  You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not second-to-highest.  But there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change.  In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond.  All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing.

So how do you change paradigms?  Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that:

“You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm.  You keep speaking and acting, loudly and with assurance, from the new one.  You insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power.  You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open minded.” – Thomas Kuhn

1.  Transcending paradigms

“There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm.  That is to keep oneself unattached to the area of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that no paradigm is “true,” that everyone, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.” – Donella Meadows

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Taking a Systems View

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then the rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves…There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.”—Robert Pirsig, Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

082113_1414_TakingaSyst1.jpg

In Thinking in Systems, Donella Meadows uses a Slinky® to introduce a central concept about systems: that behavior is related to structure.   A system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.   Systems aren’t just any old collection of things.  A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something; it must consist of three kinds of things:  elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.  For example, the elements of your digestive system include teeth, enzymes, stomach and intestines.  They are interrelated through the physical flow of food, and through an elegant set of regulating chemical signals.  The function of the system is to break down food into the basic nutrients and to transfer those nutrients into the bloodstream (another system) while discarding unusable products.  A school is a system.  So is a city, and a factory, and a corporation, and a national economy.

Systems produce the effects they do because of the way they are structured, the interconnections between elements, and their purposes.  The elements of a system are often the easiest parts of a system to notice because many of them are visible, tangible things.  The elements of a tree are roots, trunk, branches and leaves.   But before going too far in that direction, it’s a good idea to stop dissecting out elements and to start looking for the interconnections, the relationships that hold the elements together…Some interconnections in systems are actual physical flows, such as the water in the tree’s trunk or the students progressing through a university.   Many interconnections are flows of information – signals that go to decision points or action points within a system…

If information-based relationships are hard to see, functions or purposes are even harder.  A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily written or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system.  Purposes are deduced from behavior, not from rhetoric or stated goals.

You can understand the relative importance of a system’s elements, interconnections and purposes by imagining them changed one by one.  A tree changes its cells constantly, the leaves every year or so, but it is still essentially the same tree.  If you change the players of a football team performance is usually not significantly affected.  Change the rules of the game from football to basketball and you have, as they say, a whole new ball game.  Changes in purposes can be drastic.  What if you keep the players and the rules but change the purpose – from winning to losing?

 

steoy-behaviour

Systems fool us by presenting themselves – or we fool ourselves by seeing the world – as a series of events.  We are less likely to be surprised if we can see how events accumulate into dynamic patterns of behavior.  Long term behavior provides clues to the underlying systemic structure.

Leverage Points – Places to Intervene in a System

Leverage points, the silver bullet, the trim tab, the miracle cure, are points of power, but are counterintuitive. Complex systems are surprising. In descending order of influence:

  1. Transcending Paradigms – That no paradigm is ‘true,’ that every one, including your own, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.
  2. Paradigms – The shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumption, constitute that society’s paradigm, or deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. E.g. Growth is good. One can ‘own’ land. The selfish actions of individual players in markets wonderfully accumulate to the common good. Paradigms are the sources of systems.
  3. Goals – The purpose of function of the system. The diversity-destroying consequence of the push for control demonstrates why the goal of a system is a leverage point superior to the self-organizing ability of a system.
  4. Self-Organization – The power to add, change, or evolve system structure. In biological systems that power is called evolution. In human economies it’s called technical advance or social revolution. The genetic code within the DNA that is the basis of all biological evolution contains just four different letters combined into words of three letters each. Intervening here is obvious but unpopular. Encouraging variability and experimentation and diversity means ‘losing control.’
  5. Rules – Incentives, punishments, constraints. As we try to imagine restructured rules and what our behavior would be under them we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power.
  6. Information Flows – The structure of who does and does not have access to information. Missing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure.

Systems work well because of three characteristics:

  • Resilience – the ability to bounce or spring back into shape, position, etc., after being pressed or stretched. Elasticity. Resilience arises from a rich structure of many feedback loops that can work in different ways to restore a system even after large perturbations. Because resilience is something that is very hard to see without a whole systems view, people often sacrifice resilience for stability or productivity or some more immediately recognizable system property.
  • Self-Organization – The capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex, to learn, diversify, evolve. Like resilience, self-organization is often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stability, the usual excuses for turning creative human beings into mechanical adjuncts in production processes. Self-organization produces heterogeneity and unpredictability. It requires freedom and experimentation, and a certain amount of disorder. These conditions often can be scary for individuals and threatening to power structures. Out of simple rules of self-organization can grow systems of great complexity.
  • Hierarchy – the arrangement of subsystems aggregated into larger subsystems, aggregated into still larger subsystems. E.g. A cell in your liver is a subsystem of an organ, which is a subsystem of you as an organism. Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up. When a subsystem’s goals dominate at the expense of the total system’s goals, the resulting behavior is called suboptimization. Too much central control is just as damaging. To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms, and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve coordination toward the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organizing.
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Simple, Complicated, Complex

creation of complexity from simplicity - animation

The creation of complexity from simplicity – Chris Madden

The term complexity was popularized in the mid-20th century by Warren Weaver. Weaver identified three broad categories of systems: simple, complicated, and complex.

Simple systems are made of only a few interacting inert objects like billiard balls or satellites. Complicated systems, like automobiles or airplanes, may have thousands of parts or more. However, once designed and built, even complicated instruments perform in very predictable, mechanical, ways. Bicycles, automobiles, and even robotic systems turn out to be everyday items whose degree of complicatedness we take for granted.

Early scientists –– Galileo, Descartes, and Newton – developed a set of analytic methods to reduce these simple systems to basic laws. Analytic methods were literally understood in terms of cutting apart all objects and all claims to truth to their root causes and assumptions in order to reassemble them into complete explanatory systems. These methods were so effective that by the early 1800s Laplace could assert:

“Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all forces by which nature is animated and the respective situations of the being which compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis – it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.”

In other words, there are no accidents; everything that is going to happen is determined by what has already happened, and everything that has already happened can be determined from current conditions.

Early in the 1900s, however, belief in analysis and the ability to predict the future and determine the past from present conditions began to be questioned.   French mathematician Henri Poincare’ explained that:

“…it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomenon. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the latter. Prediction becomes impossible.”

Complex* systems have features that are also complicated and may act in patterned ways, but whose interactions are constantly changing. An air traffic control system is complex because its functioning depends on many variables that keep varying, such as weather, aircraft downtime, peak loading, etc.

With complicated systems, one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the design (or having a detailed engineering manual at hand). In contrast, depending on the interplay of the elements in the system, complex systems may produce highly divergent outcomes.

It is impossible to predict the way a complex system will respond with sufficient accuracy. One is limited to establishing the conditions characteristic of a complex system that lead to emergence,** then working creatively at leverage points to change the configuration of the system until the desired ends are produced.

*For a system to be classed as complex, it must manifest several necessary qualities:

1. Emergence (self-organization)

Emergence (e.g. ants, birds flocking, human social groups) is a primary quality of a learning system where these collectives develop capacities that can exceed the possibilities of the same group of agents if they were made to work independently; where people that need not have much in common, much less be oriented by a common goal, can join in a collective group that seems to develop a clear purpose.

**The conditions for emergence:

  • Internal diversity—a source of possible responses to emergent circumstances. One cannot specify in advance what sorts of variation will be necessary for appropriately intelligent action.
  • Internal redundancy—the complement to diversity; enables the habituated, moment-to-moment interactivity of the agents that constitute a system.
  • Neighbor interaction—the neighbors that must interact with one another are ideas, hunches, queries, and other manners of representation.
  • Distributed control—one must relinquish any desire to control the structure and outcomes of the collective; one must give up control if complexity is going to happen.
  • Randomness—the structures that define complex social systems maintain a delicate balance between sufficient coherence to orient agents’ actions and sufficient randomness to allow for flexible and varied response.
  • Coherence.

2. Bottom up

Emergence is an example of “bottom up” organization; it does not require a “leader,” per se. Emergence is a paradox: a manifestation of a collective intelligence, but intelligent group action is dependent on the independent actions of diverse individuals. (“Intelligence” is the quality of exploring a range of possible actions and selecting ones that are well suited to the immediate situation; a repertoire of possibilities, and a means to discern the relative effectiveness of each possibility, not unlike creativity.)

  • Non-polarized groups can consistently make better decisions and come up with better answers than most of their members and…often the group outperforms the best member.
  • You do not need a consensus in order…to tap into the wisdom of a crowd, and the search for consensus encourages tepid, lowest-common-denominator solutions which offend no one rather than exciting everyone.
  • The rigidly hierarchical, multilayered corporation…discourages the free flow of information.
  • Decisions about local problems should be made, as much as possible, by people close to the problem…People with local knowledge are often best positioned to come up with a workable and efficient solution.
  • The evidence in favor of decentralization is overwhelming…The more responsibility people have with their own environments, the more engaged they will be.
  • Individual irrationality can add up to collective rationality.
  • Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person to act as independently as possible.

3. Scale-free networks

A so-called scale-free (decentralized) network, which consists of nodes nodding into grander nodes, usually on several levels of organization, is more robust than a centralized network because if a node were to fail, it is unlikely that the whole system will collapse.) A decentralized network will decay into a centralized network under stress. For example, when time is a scarce commodity, the most common organizational strategy is a central network with a leader or teacher as the hub and employees or students at the ends of the spokes. This works against the “intelligence” of the organization by preventing agents from pursuing their own self-interest and obsessions, preventing diversity of experience.

4. Nested organization

An immediate implication of a decentralized architecture is that distinct levels o of organization can emerge.

5. Ambiguously bounded, but organizationally closed systems

  • Complex systems are “open”; that is they are constantly exchanging matter and/or information with their contexts. In a situation where a collective is working on a project, it is rarely a simple matter to discern who has contributed what, especially if the final product is at all sophisticated.
  • Complex systems usually arise from and are part of other complex systems, even while being coherent and discernible unities. Where does an agent stop and a collective begin? The question is sometimes easily answered. After all the distinction between an ant and an anthill seems relatively straightforward. However, if one considers more complex systems, for example, and individuals personality, the situation becomes much more difficult.
  • Distinguishable but intimately intertwined networks can and do exist in the same “spaces.” Consider the relationship between one’s neural system and one’s system of understandings, both of which can be understood in terms of decentralized networks, but neither of which can be collapsed into the other.

6. Structure-determinism

Structured-determined behavior is one of the key characteristics used to distinguish a complex unity from a complicated (mechanical) system. The manner in which a complicated system will respond to a perturbation is generally easy to figure out, simply because its responses are determined by the perturbation. For example, if a block of wood is nudged, its response will be quite different than if you nudge a dog. The response will not be determined by you, but by the dog. What is more, not even experience with nudging will provide an adequate knowledge of what will happen if it is repeated—for two reasons. First, a complex system learns. That is, it is constantly altering its own structure in response to emergent experiences. Secondly, systems that are virtually identical will respond differently to the same perturbation. Hence one cannot generalize the results from one system to another…it problematizes the contemporary desire for “best practices” in education—a notion that what works well in one context should work well in most contexts. That only makes sense when talking about mechanical systems.

7. Far-from-equilibrium

Complex systems do not operate in balance; indeed, a stable equilibrium implies death for a complex system.

8. Short-range relationships

Most of the information is exchanged among close neighbors, meaning that the system’s coherence depends mostly on agents’ immediate interdependencies, not on centralized control or top-down administration. A “win-win logic”; an agent’s situation will likely improve if the situations of his/her/its nearest neighbors improve. A “we” is usually better than an “I” for all involved.

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A Perfectly Designed System

systems-thinking the perfect system

“A system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”Paul Batalden

Part III

Over the past 40 years the US economic system has been, and continues to be, systematically altered to funnel more and more of America’s wealth to the already rich, the “have-mores,” and away from the “have-nots.” The shift of wealth is accompanied by a commensurate shift of more and more economic and political power to the already powerful, undermining the foundations of democracy. If we want to live in a society where the people govern themselves, share the same rights and responsibilities, and decide for themselves how the products of the economy are to be distributed, we must learn to work together to define that society and create it.

A sense of progress toward ideals gives meaning to life and makes choice significant. The belief that the future depends on what we do between now and then enhances this quality.

Many of our problems derive from trying to get rid of a dissatisfaction we feel; for instance with the way the car is working , or how much a certain item costs. This is reactive problem solving, an effort to get rid of what we don’t want. We tend to respond more to our dislikes than our likes, more by our hates than by our loves. It often results in unforeseen consequences that may be worse than the original problem. For instance, DDT.

In proactive problem solving we decide what we want and try to create it. It reduces the likelihood that we will overlook the consequences of our solutions. When embedded in proactive planning, designing a future and finding ways to move toward it as effectively as possible is called idealized redesign. But no idealized design can remain ideal for long. The goal then is not an ideal state or system but an ideal-seeking state or system. Its designers need not have all the answers, but they should design into the system the capability of finding them. The redesigning is never complete. It is subject to continual revision in light of newly acquired information, knowledge, understanding, wisdom and imagination.

German philosopher Friedrich von Schiller believed that human development depends on the successful negotiation between contradictory forces of existence; in fact, there is “no other way to develop the manifold aptitudes of man than to bring them in opposition with one another.” For Schiller, these forces could indeed be harmonized in the balance between sensibility and reason that is the aesthetic condition, or what Schiller called the Spieltrieb. The character of Spiel is the will to play, the will to create, also the will to beauty. Creating must be playful, for according to Schiller, it is only in play that humans are really human. The domain of Spiel opens up, it seems, an aesthetic void, where the product created or even the time it takes cannot be scripted.

In the aesthetic condition the process of creativity or innovation can be thought of as knowledge “production;” as an ever-expanding space of possibility that is opened and enlarged simply by exploring the space of what is currently possible. A society for the future might be thought of as being oriented toward creating the as-yet unimagined – indeed, the currently unimaginable. Such a ‘goal’ can only be understood in terms of exploration of the current possibilities. Rather than focusing on perpetuating entrenched habits, society must be principally concerned with ensuring the conditions for the emergence of the as-yet unimagined.

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MORE, and MORE, and MORE, and MORE INEQUALITY

“If we keep doing what we have been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten,” – Paul Batalden

Income inequality in the United States has been growing for almost three decades.  A new study, an analysis of tax filings, shows that the income gap between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the remaining 99 percent widened to unprecedented levels in 2012. The top 1 percent of U.S. earners collected more than 19 percent of household income, breaking a record previously set in 1927.

Previous posts  The Grapes of Wrath and How Winner-Take-All Politics Created the Great American Inequality – describe how over the past 40 years the economic system was altered so that more and more of America’s wealth is funneled to the already rich, the “have-mores,” and away from the “have-nots.”  The already-wealthy’s siphoning off of a disproportionately large and ever increasing portion of America’s wealth forces more and more people into lives of poverty, frustration, illness, ignorance and domination.  Increasingly they are without the money they need to take advantage of opportunities to live the lives they want.  At the same time that a few very wealthy people enjoy lives of unimaginable privilege, the web of life that supports everyone’s existence is being destroyed.

Image

System structure is the source of behavior.  System behavior reveals itself as a series of events over time.

How to change the economic system to produce more of what we want, economic equality, and less of that which is undesirable, inequality?  Before we can start to make the changes we think will produce the benefits we want, we need to understand how the economic system actually works.  The first and most difficult step in this process is changing the way we think:

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” should actually be:  “I’ll see it when I believe it.” – Dr. Wayne Dywer

Trying to understand how people, the national economy, the nation’s wealth and the earth are affected by one another can be challenging if not impossible without thinking in terms of systems.  Systems aren’t just any old collection of things.  A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something; it must consist of three kinds of things:  elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose.  For example, the elements of your digestive system include teeth, enzymes, stomach and intestines.  They are interrelated through the physical flow of food, and through an elegant set of regulating chemical signals.  The function of the system is to break down food into the basic nutrients and to transfer those nutrients into the bloodstream (another system) while discarding unusable products.  A school is a system.  So is a city, and a factory, and a corporation, and a national economy.

Systems produce the effects they do because of the way they are structured, the interconnections between elements, and their purposes.  The elements of a system are often the easiest parts of a system to notice because many of them are visible, tangible things.  The elements of a tree are roots, trunk, branches and leaves.  But before going too far in that direction, it’s a good idea to stop dissecting out elements and to start looking for the interconnections, the relationships that hold the elements together…Some interconnections in systems are actual physical flows, such as the water in the tree’s trunk or the students progressing through a university.   Many interconnections are flows of information – signals that go to decision points or action points within a system…

If information-based relationships are hard to see, functions or purposes are even harder.  A system’s function or purpose is not necessarily written or expressed explicitly, except through the operation of the system.

You can understand the relative importance of a system’s elements, interconnections and purposes by imagining them changed one by one.  A tree changes its cells constantly, the leaves every year or so, but it is still essentially the same tree.  If you change the players of a football team performance is usually not significantly affected.  Change the rules of the game from football to basketball and you have, as they say, a whole new ball game.  Changes in purposes can be drastic.  What if you keep the players and the rules but change the purpose – from winning to losing?

Understanding the economy as a system is an important first step in decreasing economic inequality.  It does not get us all the way to our desired destination, however.  More about that in our next post.

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The Grapes of Wrath

GrapesOfWrath

“Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’. I don’t know it right yet myself. That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again. Preachers gotta know. I don’t know. I gotta ask.” – Casey in  “The Grapes of Wrath” (Movie)

“As a small percentage of the nation lives at the pinnacle of wealth, an increasing number of Americans are sinking into third world economic and living conditions – and being blamed for their plight… Shake a stick in post–financial collapse America, and one hits poverty. It’s everywhere: tent cities in municipal parks, under freeway overpasses, along river walks. Food lines stretching down city blocks. Foreclosure signs dotting suburban landscapes. Overstretched free clinics providing a modicum of healthcare to people no longer insured. Elderly people whose pensions have vanished and whose hopes for a decent old age have evaporated. Unemployed men and women looking for clothes for their kids at thrift stores and food for their families at pantries.” – Sasha Abramsky in The American Way of Poverty:  How The Other Half Still Lives.

In their ground-breaking book, “Winner-Take-All Politics – How Washington made the rich richer – and turned its back on the middle class,” authors Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson identify the culprits behind the great economic crime of our time— the yawning, and still growing, income inequality gap between the vast majority of Americans and the richest of the rich.

They found that runaway inequality and the present economic malaise reflect how a political system that traditionally has been responsive to the interests of the middle class was hijacked by the super-rich.

Hacker and Pierson trace the rise of the winner-take-all economy to the late 1970s when, under a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, a major transformation of American politics occurred with big business and conservative ideologues organizing themselves to undo the regulations and progressive tax policies that had helped ensure a fair distribution of economic rewards.  Deregulation got under way, taxes were cut for the wealthiest, and business decisively defeated labor in Washington.  The transformation continued under Reagan and the Bushes as well as under Clinton, with both parties catering to the interests of those at the very top.

The cause of the transformation is most often attributed to a memo written by Lewis Powell on August 23, 1971, to the US Chamber of Commerce that outlined his recommendations to the Chamber to combat what he felt was a serious “attack on the American enterprise system” by “leftists” and “perfectly respected members of society.”

During the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and continuing thru the mid-1960s, while America and The Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War, some American business leaders enjoyed places of privilege and responsibility in American society.  E.g. the so-called “Rockefeller Republicans.”   But by the late ‘60s, with President Johnson’ escalation of involvement in the Vietnamese War, more and more people began to perceive business as complicit in the war in order to help profits.  Business lost much of its cache’ of a contributor to social welfare.

After the war, reflected by the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, business rode a resurgence of public acceptance of its values to increased political power.  Making lots of money became an accepted and valid goal in itself.   During this time a fundamental change in the way business was conducted steadily took hold in the business world.  Corporate officers jettisoned their affinity for social responsibility in favor of the single goal of making money.  Management to “meet the numbers,” epitomized by Jack Welch at GE, resulted in ever more severe policies to increase profits at the expense of people.

Over 40 years later a more sinister perspective of business emerges  as we are able to see and evaluate the accumulating effects on society of business’s fixation on profits at the expense of people:  a rapacious, no-holds-barred, champion of cancerous capitalism that in its quest for power and profits is literally destroying not only the American and world economies, but democratic government and the planet’s environment as well.

Business exceptionalism’  typically rationalizes this excess by invoking  the defense:  business/capitalism cannot be held responsible for its negative effects on people, society and the environment because it is the integral, sustaining, essential part of the American economy; it is responsible for allowing us to live the American Dream; business ‘efficiency’ must not be curtailed under threat of collapse of the American Way-of-life.

But its single-minded fixation on increasing profits at the expense of other social goals highlights the basic philosophical difficulty inherent in capitalism:    it is like a cancer.  To survive it must continually grow at the expense of its host.   It takes control of society, appropriates people and resources according to its requirements, but ultimately kills society.

In stark contrast, humanity cares about its members; it is concerned with and works to improve each individual’s welfare.  Humanity’s concern for its individual members is reflected in the way society and social institutions including schools and government are constructed so that they support this purpose.  As might be expected, the difference in philosophical purposes between capitalism and humanity results in dramatically different societies, with the latter resulting in far better individual welfare than the former.

This then, according to George Lakoff, is the battle between capitalism and caring, between hegemony and participation, between authoritarianism and freedom.  It is a stark contrast, but if freedom is to prevail, the battle must be waged on all possible fronts simultaneously.  The next posts will begin to explicate how that might be done.

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How “Winner-take-all Politics” created the great US inequality

The superrich have grabbed the bulk of the past three decades’ gains.

Still struggling in the wake of “the great recession,” average Americans are feeling frustrated, angry and betrayed. Their lives are not what they expected from the American economy. The continuing transfer of trillions (1,000,000,000,000′s) of dollars to the 1% of Americans who were  by far already the richest people living in the country, has left little reason to be optimistic about the future.

In their ground-breaking new book, “Winner-Take-All Politics – How Washington made the rich richer – and turned its back on the middle class,” authors Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson identify the culprits behind this great economic crime of our time— the yawning, and still growing, income inequality gap between the vast majority of Americans and the richest of the rich.

What they find is that runaway inequality and the present economic crisis reflect what government has done to aid the rich and what it has not done to safeguard the interests of the middle class. The winner-take-all economy is primarily a result of winner-take-all politics. Their investigation shows how a political system that traditionally has been responsive to the interests of the middle class has been hijacked by the super rich.

Hacker and Pierson trace the rise of the winner-take-all economy back to the late 1970s when, under a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, a major transformation of American politics occurred. With big business and conservative ideologues organizing themselves to undo the regulations and progressive tax policies that had helped ensure a fair distribution of economic rewards, deregulation got under way, taxes were cut for the wealthiest, and business decisively defeated labor in Washington. And this transformation continued under Reagan and the Bushes as well as under Clinton, with both parties catering to the interests of those at the very top.

What to do

Hacker and Pierson cite research that shows Americans are “conservative egalitarians.” That is, they are skeptical of government but are concerned about inequality of income, wealth and opportunity, and are supportive of programs to address them.

Unfortunately, although Americans know inequality is there and that it’s been growing, they seriously underestimate its magnitude, especially the earnings of the people at the top.

Add to this the fact that Americans are uninformed about politics. They find it hard to link their broad economic concerns to specific policies, primarily because they have no organizations that follow the tortuous trail of policy development and interpret it to them so they can vote accordingly.

Newspapers, especially community newspapers, and unions used to fill these functions. Now, with the decline of unions, newspapers have to carry the full load. But with media splintering into ever smaller audience slices plus the tendency of people to choose entertainment over hard news – coupled with the loss of advertising revenue – newspapers have closed and/or withdrawn support for quality news.

In the past Unions have helped people in the community turn out the vote – this is where elections are won and lost. Unions have effectively followed the policy-making process and helped interpret the twists and turns and guided people in casting their vote. Now, with the union’s loss of power, how can American’s begin to counteract the effects of the winner-take-all politics? That will be the subject of future posts.

How Rich Are the Superrich?

A huge share of the nation’s economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.

Note: The 2007 data (the most current) doesn’t reflect the impact of the housing market crash. In 2007, the bottom 60% of Americans had 65% of their net worth tied up in their homes. The top 1%, in contrast, had just 10%. The housing crisis has no doubt further swelled the share of total net worth held by the superrich.

Winners Take All

The superrich have grabbed the bulk of the past three decades’ gains.

Out of Balance

A Harvard business prof and a behavioral economist recently asked more than 5,000 Americans how they thought wealth is distributed in the United States. Most thought that it’s more balanced than it actually is. Asked to choose their ideal distribution of wealth, 92% picked one that was even more equitable.

Capitol Gain

Why Washington is closer to Wall Street than Main Street.

member max. est. net worth
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) $451.1 million
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) $435.4 million
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) $366.2 million
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) $294.9 million
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) $285.1 million
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) $283.1 million
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) $231.2 million
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $201.5 million
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) $136.2 million
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) $108.1 million
combined net worth: $2.8 billion

Congressional data from 2009. Family net worth data from 2007. Sources: Center for Responsive Politics; US Census; Edward Wolff, Bard College.

Who’s Winning?

For a healthy few, it’s getting better all the time.


Sources

Income distribution: Emmanuel Saez (PDF)

Net worth: Edward Wolff(PDF)

Household income/income share: Congressional Budget Office

Real vs. desired distribution of wealth:
Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely (PDF)

Net worth of Americans vs. Congress: Federal Reserve (average); Center for Responsive Politics (Congress)

Your chances of being a millionaire: Calculation based on data from Wolff (PDF); US Census (household and population data)

Member of Congress’ chances:
Center for Responsive Politics

Wealthiest members of Congress:
Center for Responsive Politics

Tax cut votes:
New York Times (Senate; House)

Wall street profits, 2007-2009:
New York State Comptroller (PDF)

Unemployment rate, 2007-2009:
Bureau of Labor Statistics

Home equity, 2007-2009: Federal Reserve, Flow of Funds data, 1995-2004 and 2005-2009 (PDFs)

CEO vs. worker pay: Economic Policy Institute

Historic tax rates: Calculations based on data from The Tax Foundation

Federal tax revenue: Joint Committee on Taxation (PDF)

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Creativemornings: Good Experience

creativemorningsmtg 

Recently I attended the Orlando Chapter of Creativemornings‘ (CM) August presentation by Dr. Bruce Stephenson, Professor of Environmental Studies at Rollins College in Orlando, FL. Dr. Stephenson highlighted the development of the Creative Village in Orlando as an example of the new urbanism.

I enjoyed the presentation and the interaction with Dr. Stephenson and the other attendees and staff, but, it wasn’t like I had really contributed much of anything to the discussion, altho some people had asked some interesting questions.  Like, ‘ I’d love to live in Orlando because we walk the talk of sustainability, but the schools are so much better in the suburbs and I want my kids to get a good education; that’s important to us.’  The answer was ‘sorry, can’t help you.’  Evidently schools were not a priority of the Creative Village people.   Maybe that’s just me, but isn’t that something you’d consider if you were serious about attracting young, creative people?  In fact, if they were really serious about improving Orlando and attracting creative people to the area, if the schools were good, they would come.  What happens when the creative people that move here grow up and start families?

I want to be involved in building a community, but not rubber stamping a real estate project.  After all who is really benefiting from it if it doesn’t meet the needs of the whole community of Orlando?   I wondered how the rest of the citizens of Orlando would feel, because I’m sure they probably want good schools too.  Thanks for having this presentation.  If I lived in Orlando I’d want, and I’d want other citizens to be able to be involved, too, in developing community solutions to community problems.

Its too bad that there isn’t a forum for people to talk about issues like this, tho.  The current CM format might be a good place to start to think about models.  Maybe the current lecture style format could be updated in favor of one that favors more dialogue, question and answer, that gives everyone, opportunities to participate. It could be effective.  I mean, suppose people came to CM to get creatives’ opinions, views, etc.?  Just a thought.

It might follow the examples of complex learning systems explicated by Davis and Sumara in “Complexity and Education-Inquiries into Learning, Teaching and Research,” and Patricia Shaw’s “Changing Conversations in Organizations, A Complexity Approach to Change.”***

Davis and Sumara explain that over the past 50 years our ideas of “What is knowledge and how do I get it?” have been radically revised. In the past, knowledge was thought to reside inside one’s head; learning was a process of internally representing what is out there, as if “ingesting” knowledge; e.g. “getting things into your head,” “soaking things up.” Teaching was “transmitting” knowledge from the teacher to the student; “banking” or depositing knowledge with the student for later withdrawal. (Unfortunately, this paradigm of education, combined with frequent testing, continues in many, if not most, of our schools, with predictable average results.)

This linear view does not work at all in complex systems that are self-transforming like (wo)man. Learning is not simply a matter of “experience causes learning to happen,” and is not limited to individuals. . A learner is a complex unity that is capable of adapting itself to the sorts of new and diverse circumstances that an active agent is likely to encounter in a dynamic world. From a complexity perspective, learners can include social and classroom groupings, schools, communities, bodies of knowledge, languages, cultures, and species.

Although people individually create their own knowledge, simultaneously knowledge is being created within social groups. The process of knowledge “production” might be described as an ever-expanding space of possibility that is opened and enlarged simply by exploring the space of what is currently possible.

In a complex system the object at the center is never an individual, but an idea, a shared commitment, a common purpose, a collective orientation or an emerging possibility.

In designing complex systems it is impossible to predict the outcomes; one must be principally concerned with preparing the conditions for the emergence of the as-yet unimagined. *

Suggestions:

1. CM’s common purpose appears diffuse, undefined. CM originated in New York City as a way to bring together local creative communities that was accessible and free of charge; no involved multi-day conferences, which the founder thought were elitist and not accessible. The first meeting was a coffee and chat that evolved into a recurring lecture series attracting leading thinkers, designers and other types of creative people. Succinctly stating the organizing purpose of CM, (perhaps a monthly topic for each chapter to consider?), will facilitate the group’s self-organization around the purpose, improving functioning and facilitating emergence of the as yet unknown. In other words, CM could transform itself.

2. Taking into account the qualities necessary for a complex system and for emergence,* it may be helpful to conduct monthly meetings more as conversations, as a dialogue among attendees concerning an idea – in October it might have been “What is Urbanism?–with the invited speaker and/or convener playing the roles of ‘director’/facilitator/resource person. (Since in this setting leadership is diffused, the speaker and/or convener may experience this as an acute sense of the paradox of being “in charge but not in control”.) Participants will likely experience a fun, exciting and entertaining environment where new knowledge is created in several levels, including perhaps a scale free network linking the participants.

Examples:

An example of developing the conditions for emergence of knowledge from group discussions taken from Davis and Sumara’s research is given below:** (Although participants in this case are professionals familiar with the subject matter, similar studies have been carried out with high school students during regular class periods with similar results. It appears appropriate, then, to extend the study results to CM participants who are not necessarily experts in the month’s topic.)

You may also find relevant an excerpt concerning ensemble improvisation from Patricia Shaw’s “Changing Conversations in Organizations, A Complexity Approach to Change.”***

*Researchers have identified several necessary qualities of a complex system:

1. Emergence (self-organization)

Emergence (e.g. ants, birds flocking, human social groups) is a primary quality of a learning system where these collectives develop capacities that can exceed the possibilities of the same group of agents if they were made to work independently; where people that need not have much in common, much less be oriented by a common goal, can join in a collective group that seems to develop a clear purpose.

The conditions for emergence:

  • Internal diversity—a source of possible responses to emergent circumstances. One cannot specify in advance what sorts of variation will be necessary for appropriately intelligent action.
  • Internal redundancy—the complement to diversity; enables the habituated, moment-to-moment interactivity of the agents that constitute a system.
  • Neighbor interaction—the neighbors that must interact with one another are ideas, hunches, queries, and other manners of representation.
  • Distributed control—one must relinquish any desire to control the structure and outcomes of the collective; one must give up control if complexity is going to happen.
  • Randomness—the structures that define complex social systems maintain a delicate balance between sufficient coherence to orient agents’ actions and sufficient randomness to allow for flexible and varied response.
  • Coherence.

2. Bottom up

Emergence is an example of “bottom up” organization; it does not require a “leader,” per se. Emergence is a paradox: a manifestation of a collective intelligence, but intelligent group action is dependent on the independent actions of diverse individuals. (“Intelligence” is the quality of exploring a range of possible actions and selecting ones that are well suited to the immediate situation; a repertoire of possibilities, and a means to discern the relative effectiveness of each possibility, not unlike creativity.)

  • Non-polarized groups can consistently make better decisions and come up with better answers than most of their members and…often the group outperforms the best member.
  • You do not need a consensus in order…to tap into the wisdom of a crowd, and the search for consensus encourages tepid, lowest-common-denominator solutions which offend no one rather than exciting everyone.
  • The rigidly hierarchical, multilayered corporation…discourages the free flow of information.
  • Decisions about local problems should be made, as much as possible, by people close to the problem…People with local knowledge are often best positioned to come up with a workable and efficient solution.
  • The evidence in favor of decentralization is overwhelming…The more responsibility people have with their own environments, the more engaged they will be.
  • Individual irrationality can add up to collective rationality.
  • Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person to act as independently as possible.

3. Scale-free networks

A so-called scale-free (decentralized) network, which consists of nodes nodding into grander nodes, usually on several levels of organization, is more robust than a centralized network because if a node were to fail, it is unlikely that the whole system will collapse.) A decentralized network will decay into a centralized network under stress. For example, when time is a scarce commodity, the most common organizational strategy is a central network with a leader or teacher as the hub and employees or students at the ends of the spokes. This works against the “intelligence” of the organization by preventing agents from pursuing their own self-interest and obsessions, preventing diversity of experience.

4. Nested organization

An immediate implication of a decentralized architecture is that distinct levels o of organization can emerge.

5. Ambiguously bounded, but organizationally closed systems

  • Complex systems are “open”; that is they are constantly exchanging matter and/or information with their contexts. In a situation where a collective is working on a project, it is rarely a simple matter to discern who has contributed what, especially if the final product is at all sophisticated.
  • Complex systems usually arise from and are part of other complex systems, even while being coherent and discernible unities. Where does an agent stop and a collective begin? The question is sometimes easily answered. After all the distinction between an ant and an anthill seems relatively straightforward. However, if one considers more complex systems, for example, and individuals personality, the situation becomes much more difficult.
  • Distinguishable but intimately intertwined networks can and do exist in the same “spaces.” Consider the relationship between one’s neural system and one’s system of understandings, both of which can be understood in terms of decentralized networks, but neither of which can be collapsed into the other.

6. Structure-determinism

Structured-determined behavior is one of the key characteristics used to distinguish a complex unity from a complicated (mechanical) system. The manner in which a complicated system will respond to a perturbation is generally easy to figure out, simply because its responses are determined by the perturbation. For example, if a block of wood is nudged, its response will be quite different than if you nudge a dog. The response will not be determined by you, but by the dog. What is more, not even experience with nudging will provide an adequate knowledge of what will happen if it is repeated—for two reasons. First, a complex system learns. That is, it is constantly altering its own structure in response to emergent experiences. Secondly, systems that are virtually identical will respond differently to the same perturbation. Hence one cannot generalize the results from one system to another…it problematizes the contemporary desire for “best practices” in education—a notion that what works well in one context should work well in most contexts. That only makes sense when talking about mechanical systems.

7. Far-from-equilibrium

Complex systems do not operate in balance; indeed, a stable equilibrium implies death for a complex system.

8. Short-range relationships

Most of the information is exchanged among close neighbors, meaning that the system’s coherence depends mostly on agents’ immediate interdependencies, not on centralized control or top-down administration. A “win-win logic”; an agent’s situation will likely improve if the situations of his/her/its nearest neighbors improve. A “we” is usually better than an “I” for all involved.

**An Example of Emergence of knowledge from group discussions:

1. Developing Knowledge

The example that we use to illustrate the discussion in this chapter is based on an extended and ongoing study of practicing teachers’ knowledge of mathematics, conducted by Davis, Simmt, and Sumara. At the time of the writing, the project is entering the fourth year of its six-year duration.

To date, most empirical studies concerned with teachers’ knowledge of mathematics have been oriented by a “deficit” model of personal understanding, whereby teachers are examined according to a predetermined set of competencies. A different approach is taken in the research reported here, which is anchored in the assumption that experienced mathematics teachers enact a certain sort of mathematical knowledge that may never have been an explicit part of their own learning—or, for that matter, of their own teaching. Indeed, much of this knowledge may not be popularly recognized as part of the formal disciplinary body of knowledge. As such, the project which involves a group of 24 teachers, is aimed explicitly at representing teachers’ mathematics-for-teaching—that is, the sorts of mathematics that arise in the actual contexts of teaching.

The cohort is a diverse one, with grades from kindergarten through high school represented. In terms of professional experience, a few of the participants are at the beginning of their careers, several have taught for decades, but two are mathematics specialists. Some teach in small urban centers, some teach in rural locations. The cohort meets for daylong seminars, scheduled every few months. The thread of the discussion that is presented through this chapter is developed around one of these sessions, in which the topic of discussion was “What is multiplication?”

2. Developing Specialized Knowledge

In the study of teachers’ mathematical knowledge, the research sessions with the teachers are regarded in different ways by the various participants. For the most part, the teachers see the meetings as “in-service sessions;” their principle reasons for taking part revolve around their professional desires to be more effective mathematics teachers. In contrast, for Davis, Simmt, & Sumara, these events are “research sessions”—that is, sites to gather data on teacher knowledge. The researchers are explicit in the fact that they are there to try to make sense of teachers’ understandings of mathematics and how that knowledge might play out in their teaching. The common ground, as developed through the course of these discussions boxes, arises in the joint production of new insights into mathematics and teaching. Topics have ranged from general issues (e.g. problem solving) to specific curriculum topics (as in the case of multiplication, developed here).

In regard to the explicit research agenda of assessing teachers’ mathematics, the investigation team often finds that teachers’ first responses to a question like “What is multiplication?”, while usually appropriate, represent just one of many possibilities, and usually a possibility that is redundant to every member of the system—that is, one that is automatized and requires little thought. In response to the “What is multiplication?” prompt, for instance, almost everyone answered “repeated addition” or “groups of”, and was surprised when asked the follow-up question, “And what else?” However, when this same group of teachers is asked to share their responses or explain for others, in general a much greater diversity of responses comes to be presented.

With regard to the redundant elements of the collective, the session that serves as the focus of this discussion unfolded early in the second year of the collaboration, and so there had been ample opportunity to establish routines and expectations. The topic of multiplication had been selected by the teachers themselves in a previous session, and so it represented a matter of shared interest and concern. The researchers’ decision to begin with the question “What is multiplication?” was intended as means to have participants represent their common knowledge on the topic—to explicitly announce the common or redundant elements around the issue-at-hand, as it were.

Participants certainly understood it in this way. What they were not expecting was that follow-up question, “And what else?”—which, as elaborated in subsequent discussion boxes, turned out to be an occasion to represent a diversity of images, applications, and other associations used to give shape to the topic of multiplication at various grade levels. It was in this diversity of responses that new, emergent possibilities for conceptual interpretation began to arise.

3. Developing Trans-Level Knowledge

As noted in the previous discussion box, the teachers’ responses to the “What is multiplication?” prompt were at first limited and seemed to offer little promise for discussion, let alone elaboration. However, when participants were asked to interact and to explore other interpretations, in rather short order they generated several other possibilities.

To enable the interactions of ideas, the researchers asked small discussion groups to prepare lists of their interpretations on posters. After an appropriate time to prepare these posters, the products were put on display at the front of the room. Through a combination of explanation, discussion, and questioning, key points were collected into single summary poster, contents of which follow:

Multiplication has to do with…

  • Repeated addition: e.g., 2 x 3 = 3 + 3 or 2 + 2 + 2;
  • Equal grouping: e.g., 2 x 3 can mean “2 groups of 3″;
  • Number-line hopping: e.g., 2 x 3 can mean “make 2 hops of length 3″;
  • Sequential folding: e.g., 2 x 3 can refer to folding a page in two parts and then into 3;
  • Many-layered: e.g., 2 x 3 means “2 layers, each of which contains 3 layers”;
  • The basis of proportional reasoning: e.g., 3 L at $2/L costs $6;
  • The inverse of division—which makes division about repeated subtraction, equal separations, number-line fragmentation, etc.;
  • A sort of intermediary of addition and exponentiation—i.e., multiplication is repeated addition, and exponentiation is repeated multiplication;
  • Array-generating: e.g., 2 x 3 gives you 2 rows of 3 or 2 columns of 3;
  • Area-producing: e.g., a 2 unit by 3 unit rectangle has an area of 6 units;
  • Dimension changing;
  • Number-line stretching or compressing: e.g., 2 x 3 = 6 can mean that “3 corresponds to 6 when a number-line is stretched by a factor of 2″;

By the end of the lengthy discussion, there was consensus that the concept of multiplication was anything but transparent. In particular, it was underscored in the interaction that multiplication was not the sum of these interpretations. It was some sort of complex conceptual blend. Teachers at all levels of schooling participate in the development and elaboration of the idea.

More significantly, perhaps, through the course of the research activity, it became more and more apparent that the mathematics of individual participants could not be distinguished from the emergent mathematical understanding of the collective itself. It became impossible to attribute authorship of particular understandings to one person or another. Moreover, the final product surpassed the knowledge of any single individual present. Its authorship was decentralized.

And even though the product was clearly a collective one, every participant attested to having learned a great deal about the topic. Several commented that they had learned more about multiplication through the session than they ad learned at any other time. The learning, that is, occurred across at least two different level of organization.

4. Enabling Constraints for Developing Knowledge

During research sessions, teachers are invited to work on shared interpretive and problem-solving tasks. These tasks are developed around mathematical topics that are selected by the teachers themselves and they are designed in ways that allow the researchers to map out some of the contours of their mathematical knowledge.

At first glance, it might seem that some of these tasks are rather narrow. Many of them—like the “What is multiplication?” example that has served as the focus of this linked series of discussions—appear to have immediate and well-established responses. Indeed, in most mathematics assessment-contexts, they would likely be seen as questions as closed-ended, with singular correct answers.

The quality is actually important. The participants need to perceive of the tasks as both relevant and do-able—that is, as coherent. At the same time, there must be sufficient play in the questions to open spaces for broader discussion. In the multiplication example, this quickly proved to be the case as teachers realized that their immediate responses did not reflect the actual conceptual complexity represented by the notion of multiplication. In other words, the follow-up “And what else?” served to flag a certain openness or ambiguity—sort of inherent randomness.

Further to this point, as new interpretations were suggested and others blended, it grew increasingly apparent that not only is there no definitive response to the question, “What is multiplication?”, but that the answer was always a moving target that is subject to endless recursive elaboration as new applications, images and metaphors are tossed into the mix.

So framed, the principle role of the researchers is understood in terms of structuring tasks that are meaningful and appropriate to participants and to organize the settings in a way that allow participants and their ideas to interact. In the context of these discussions, the researchers listen in particular for teachers’ commentaries on how they teach, might teach, and should teach. Embedded in such articulations are profound understandings of not just mathematical concepts, but the manner in which mathematical concepts are developed and learned. In other words, teachers’ knowledge of established mathematics and their knowledge of how mathematics is established are inextricably intertwined. In different terms, for us, the phrase mathematics-for-teaching refers not just o a mastery of content, but also t teachers’ understandings of the development of that knowledge on both individual and collective levels—a truly complex phenomenon. (p. 136-50)

***Ensemble Improvisation—constructing the future together

“…Keith Johnson…has spent a lifetime working with improvisation in the theater, since his days at the Royal Court in London in the 1950s. Each day Keith worked with us to develop wonderfully bizarre, comic and moving scenes in hundreds of brief improvisations involving a handful of us at any one time…Keith would notice when an improviser paused, caught in a silent conversation, and attempt to catch whatever they were in the process of rejecting. Sometimes if he asked quickly enough the person would say something and Keith would say lightly, ‘No, just before that’ and the person might suddenly offer a word or phrase which in one way was ordinary yet would immediately stir something amongst the rest of us. Often such contributions at the moment of the paused improvisation seemed to strike multiple entendres. This stirring in the audience of the rejected next contribution was spontaneous—we were tickled before we could precisely say why. And then immediately we would start making the links and associations, often sexual, irreverent, clever, always apposite at the precise moment. We resonated in various ways with the improviser’s discomfort—we all felt the pull towards and away from the revealing nature of our spontaneous responses, we felt exposed in our knowingness as the webs of associations rippled amongst us.

“Keith made it clear that he was not interested in this phenomenon from a Freudian interpretation of repressed contents of the unconscious individual mind. He was showing us how, as we communicated with ourselves and with one another, we were constrained by our history of relating as social persons. If we did not interrupt the emergence of the next and the next and the next response as they arose in us we delighted and disturbed ourselves in a way we could scarcely bear. Like someone always off balance and continuing to stay upright only by moving, the ensemble evolved. To stop was to fall. As we gestured to one another in the openness of the present engagement, the next spontaneous contribution paradoxically created continuity with the past and transformed its nature by opening a way forward which only became recognizable as it was taken up by the next response. And this creativity was of a very ordinary kind. Blood flowing with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, alarm and satisfaction, as we all discovered that our joint action was indeed beyond our individual control. As Keith pointed out, in ‘normal’ life we create conditions together which keep our sense of who we are and what kind of situation we are in much more stable and repetitive. Some conditions include the technologies, ideologies and institutional forms that we sustain together. In the imaginative world of improvisation, and with Keith’s deft encouragement, the constraints became our capacity to accept and move with whatever was happening. It is hard to bear such a degree of rapid evolution either socially, organizationally or personally, such fluidity of individual and group identity. Yet the experience was very instructive. It made it hard to hold on to the humanistic notion of an essential, authentic, unitary self as an inner possession of our subjectivity.” (p. 114-5)

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