Wolves, Rivers, Hindsight, and the "Butterfly Effect"

There is a video that is currently being shared on social media by a number of people I know. It is about the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone and the wide-ranging effects this “keystone species” had on the environment. A keystone species is a top-of-food-chain creature whose presence or absence has wide-ranging impacts. In the case of wolves, which had been hunted and eradicated, their reintroduction managed to stabilize elk population and a number of other species as well. Even more, vegetation was affected through secondary means. Indeed, the narration in the video says even “the river adapted” to the reintroduction (fewer grazing animals => less deforestation near rivers => strengthened river banks).

All this is terrific news. But there is a way that this gets reported that gives me pause. The description of the causal loops are presented as if all this was preordained. As if it was obvious that the rivers would strengthen their banks if only there were wolves.

I wonder if the planners really knew that would happen, or whether it is an after-the-fact understanding. Large system responses can be like that: in hindsight it seems obvious. But that is can give the dangerous illusion that we can predict the future if only we are smart enough.

So we get system “flow diagrams” like the one below, which seem at once reasonable and like a Rube Goldberg device:

Click for full size
Click for full size!

The point about some of these large-system effects (eg, the “butterfly effect,” an idea popularized by Edward Lorenz, where the beatings of some butterfly’s wings in one place causes a windstorm elsewhere) is that they are unpredictable ahead of time. We know there are likely to be effects, but cannot say for certain what they will be.

It is tempting for hindsight to make us feel smug when looking at our forebears. They should have known, it is easy to think to ourselves. But the nature of such large, open systems as that this is not always the case. It is impossible to know and account for all initial conditions.

Complementary Production and the Village of Hawk Creek

The story of Tom Newman and the Village of Hawk Creek gives a good example of “complementary production” (the kind I was trying to describe here).

There is a man, Tom Newman, in Cleveland, Tennessee who has spent years slowly gathering five frontier log cabins to his property and turning it into a kind of museum:

Over a period of more than 40 years, Newman purchased five log cabins, carefully taking each one apart, moving them to his property and meticulously putting them back together again.

Photo William Wright

Not only is he interested in capturing and preserving the life of colonists on the frontier of Tennessee, Newman said he wants to share a message with today’s youth.

“I want to show young people the skills and the hard work that it took the early settlers to build their house, to build their home,” Newman said. “I took those logs down, moved them in here and put them back up. That’s hard work! But that’s nothing compared to what those pioneers had to live with. I think young people need to know a little bit about that, if they can. This land was built on hard work.”

The default is to think of “schools” as being in charge of schooling students. (In fact we even call them “learners.”) If instead we think of “education of youth,” and not “schooling,” as a multifaceted and community-wide challenge, that will necessarily involve a wide array of actors, then possibilities open up. You will then look for solutions that involve more than just institutions (“schools”) and professionals (“educators” and administrators) and that are likely to involve complementary actions. Hawk Creek is one such part of a community response to the challenge.

Note that Newman is doing this thing because he is interested, but he is importantly connecting with others in the community and he sees it as an educational resource. The people of Cleveland, TN have an educational resource now that they did not have. Institutions called “schools” can now imagine new ways to, potentially, “teach” history.

Co-Production: Blobs and Squares

In a class, we have been talking a little bit about “co-production” from the standpoint of federal government organizations. Co-production is the idea that institutions and citizens (or other entities) can and should work in complementary ways. As an example, the “see something, say something” campaign is such an effort.

There are a couple of ways of looking at this idea. One is from an institutional standpoint: How can we get citizens to “do their part?” This is illustrated in a video based on work by Edgar Cahn, called the Parable of the Blobs and Squares:

(Click to watch video on Vimeo.)
(Click to watch video on Vimeo. Alas I cannot embed it.)

The video describes a vexing problem when it comes to co-production. Institutions (squares) tend to force citizens (blobs) to function like squares when they try to work together.

Here is a post by my friend Janis Foster that looks at this video and gives a great and thoughtful recap:

This ingenious video uses cartoon-like blobs and squares to illustrate the different contributions that institutions and people can make in solving problems, and . . . paints a good picture of the relationship that I see most frequently when institutions try to solve problems through the most typical paths of community engagement.

In my experience, community engagement for most institutions (governments, foundations, established non-profits) involves people in institutions (squares) talking to people (blobs) to understand a problem and get their advice on how they should solve the problem. Institutions talk to people individually (surveys) or collectively (focus groups or forums or via other community engagement processes). . . . Too often, when they give grants to community groups, they do that without understanding what they are doing to them by forcing them into a non-profit organization mold by their requirements or expectations.

It also shows what happens to the grassroots groups that people in a community form for mutual aid and collective action become more like squares than blobs – most often, when they are trying to gain legitimacy or find resources in their quest to get something done about a big problem in their community.  They gain something (capacity to do things that squares are good at doing) but they lose something (capacity to do what blobs are good at doing).

This video . . . calls for co-production – a way of working together that allows squares to do what they do well and blobs to bring their unique gifts, perspectives and talents to the table. [O]ne of the things that makes it hard is that we – all of us – have a love-affair with squares and a dismissive attitude about blobs.  Our love affair with squares has made us forget that we all are also blobs in some hours of our day or that the world of blobs even exists.

But it does not have to be this way. We can, instead, see that there are shared concerns that both institutions and citizens have — and that both “squares” and “blobs” have an interest and things to contribute. So instead of seeing Neighborhood Watch programs as “citizens helping the police,” we might instead be able to see a way to define public safety as a shared endeavor in the community. In this instance, then, the police would in fact be “helping the community” rather than vice versa.

This is not pie-in-the-sky, though it is an alternative way of seeing things. Indeed, Nobel Prize winner in economics Elinor Ostrom won her shared award for showing that resources in the commons could be effectively managed through co-production of citizens.

What examples have you seen, if any, of this kind of co-production? My guess is this happens on a smaller scale more frequently than on larger scales.


A Fourth Systems Thinking Building Block?

Some of my friends and readers know I am nearly finished pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at American University. (No, I am not intending to pursue a career in the federal government; the MPA is like the MBA of the social sector and I thought it a useful higher degree to have.) In my current course, which focuses on systems-level technology and change management, I have had the pleasure of re-reading Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline, which I read decades ago when it first came out.

When I first read it, I really didn’t know anything about anything and had certainly not worked long enough in any organization to grasp what Senge was saying. So reading this work now has been a highlight of my program.

One of Senge’s core points is that by looking at system archetypes, it is possible to determine ways to address problems that otherwise would be vexing and intractable. That is, by seeing systems we are able to see relationships and leverage points that are otherwise invisible. An example is the “tragedy of the commons” archetype as it relates to, say, traffic. Traffic jams are often the result of a systemic tragedy of the commons, where individual self-interested (and reasonable) behavior results in cars vying for the same small piece of real estate. The knee-jerk reaction to a persistent traffic jam at a certain freeway entrance might be top widen it, the logic being that it must be a bottleneck. But by taking a systems view, another answer might present itself: throttle down the traffic entering the onramp by using, say, an alternate-lane traffic signal.

Senge presents a number of systemic archetypes. But what interests me is that the fundamental building blocks for all of these archetypes are just three processes. Systems are built out of combinations of amplifying processes (which can either go upwards or downwards), balancing processes (where change is resisted by the system), or feedback delays (where there is a lag between cause and effect).

When I read this as a young person, I did not see how sweeping this claim is. Three processes describe all systems. It’s as crazy as saying just four amino acids can be combined to create the blueprint for all of the varied life on Earth!

Ludwig Boltzman's grave. Boltzman first theorized about entropy.
Ludwig Boltzman’s grave. Boltzman first theorized about entropy.

This is important to me, as I study political ecosystems in community. Is it possible to describe all such systems using just three building blocks? I am resistant to the idea. Political systems are comprised of individuals, all acting on their own and operating within multilayered and interlocking networks of association. It seems too mechanistic to think that three Newtonian laws would account for all the activity I see.

I have thought of a fourth potential “fundamental process,” especially as it relates to human behavior, but I am not sure it counts in this way of thinking. The process is entropy: the tendency for any system to move towards randomness unless energy is added into it. This seems like it might be a confounding factor in any of the feedback processes described above.

I’ll keep thinking about it.

What Do I Do?

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am a program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?

We study how democracy can best work as it should.

By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:

Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.

A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.

So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:

Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.

So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.

We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.


Timeline Of A Frictionless Life

Today I came across a relatively new (month-old) feature in Facebook Messenger: you can hail an Uber from within the app. Both Facebook and Uber act as (and have aspirations to be) interesting “front door” or “gateway” apps. For instance, for more and more people Facebook is not a page on the World Wide Web: it is the Web. All browsing starts in Facebook. Similarly, Uber has aspirations to be the first thing people think of when they want to move themselves around in a place.

Both of these “front door” functions actually are about reducing hassle, or friction. It is a hassle to find links to visit. It is a hassle to get in a car, drive yourself to a place, and park. Facebook and Uber remove those hassles (or intend to).

This frictionless society has been building inexorably, and it is interesting to think about its timeline and to reflect at how different the world has become and is becoming.

In thinking about this timeline, it is possible to start as early as 1969 when Arpanet was created, or 1989 when AOL was launched, or 1991 when the first Web page was published (actually that link points to a replica).

But instead I am thinking about the efforts and effects of major companies. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a dystopic history or the description of a pathway to an easier lifestyle — or it could be both.

In any event, think about it:

  • Amazon (buying things) established 1994
  • craigslist (local want-ad stuff) established 1995
  • Wells Fargo Web banking established 1995
  • Peapod (groceries) established 1996
  • Google (searching) established 1998
  • PayPal (paying people) established 1998
  • Wikipedia (knowledge) established 2001
  • iTunes (digital music) invented 2001
  • Gmail (best email) launched 2004
  • Facebook (social community) established 2004
  • YouTube (video) established 2005
  • Google Maps (wayfinding) launched 2005
  • Twitter launched 2006
  • Apple TV launched 2006
  • Hulu (broadcast TV) established 2007
  • iPhone launched 2007
  • Spotify (even easier music) established 2008
  • Uber (transportation) established 2009

Just the above list does not do justice to the massive dislocation that a handful of these companies have created. Just think about how altogether possible it is to:

  • Buy everything you need through Amazon (groceries through local delivery service like Peapod)
  • Maintain connected to community, communicate, and learn about news through Facebook
  • Pay all bills through web banking
  • Listen to any music you want through Spotify
  • Watch any filmed entertainment (TV shows or movies) through Apple TV
  • Get around using Uber
  • Find people to do housework through craigslist and pay them through PayPal

Each of these services is attempting to create a total “front door” ecosystem, and they have to varying degrees created footholds among and between each other (Facebook + Uber for example).

What else is ripe to become more frictionless? Making objects (3d printing)? Learning (Lynda)? Remembering things (Evernote)?