Sunday, August 31, 2014

Civic Complexity 101

A friend recently asked why I keep tweeting about complexity and why is it relevant to our respective work. Here's my attempt to answer that very good question.

Our communities are full of messy, wicked challenges that defy easy solution. Yet they can be solved. But only if we understand complexity. While the term means different things in different settings, complexity can be described as what emerges from the interactions of independent players within a system. A key attribute of a complex system is it is beyond the control of any player within the system.

I often use the metaphor of nature to help people understand civic complexity because we are all at least familiar with the complex natural systems that make up our environment and because just about everything we want to learn about our civic complexity we can learn from nature. (This is why I keep quoting Aldo Leopold in this blog.)

Beautiful landscapes like the one above can emerge from the interaction of the independent players within a natural ecosystem. Of course, so can mudslides and forest fires. It is the interactions among the players within a system that determines what emerges. Quality interactions result in order and beauty. Poor interactions result in disorder and chaos.The quality of the interactions are determined, in part, by predetermined rules. In nature, we call these the laws of nature. Laws that keep water flowing downhill and predators keeping varmint populations in check.

Our communities are home to a host of complex civic systems that are made up of diverse, independent players. The list of civic systems includes education, business development, safety, health, entrepreneurship, workforce and on and on. Of course all of those individual systems are inter-connected into a larger civic system that shapes our community's quality of life.

The education system, for example, involves organizations as diverse as public schools, private schools, universities, trade schools etc. Throw into the mix social workers, parents, students, school bus drivers and counselors and you have a very complex system. What emerges from that system -- educational outcomes -- is dependent not on any one individual organization but on how the many players perform and how well they interact with each other.

What are the predetermined rules of interaction -- the equivalent of a the laws of nature -- that guide how organizations interact within our communities? Every community has them. These laws are often referred to as civic culture. If a community's civic culture is tolerant of lousy interactions -- such as corrupt organizations abusing power or unrelenting turf protectors -- then the messy wicked problems of the community will persist. (See my earlier post on signs of a poisoned civic culture.)

Researchers as diverse as Manuel Pastor and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston have taken deep data dives to figure out how communities make progress on wicked problems associated with economic prosperity. They have reached the same conclusion. The single distinguishing factor between those communities that are able to move forward and those that are stuck is not wealth, education or innovation. It is the quality of the interactions among diverse stakeholders.

There's a fancy term for quality interactions among diverse stakeholders: collaboration. 

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