If you’re the kind of person who likes intellectual exploration, abstract concepts and learning for the sheer joy of it, I have a suggestion: Spend a few weeks learning about systems thinking.
OK, I didn’t really think you’d go for it. Civic leaders are practical people who have little patience with theories. But a little theory can sometimes be helpful, and in this case might offer some guidance and encouragement for your work. So let me offer you a thumbnail guide to systems thinking (or at least, to my layperson’s understanding of it).
To begin, it’s a way of seeing major problems as . . . well, systems, rather than isolated issues. Systems thinkers usually begin with a thorough analysis that tries to untangle the system’s elements, interconnections and functions (they tend to make elaborate charts). They look at how the system changes over time (what systems thinkers call “flow” and “stocks”). Finally, they examine the causes or drivers of change, which they represent as “feedback loops” that work either to bring the system into balance or reinforce its direction. There’s much, much more to systems thinking, but trust me, a little goes a long way. This stuff gets complicated quickly and a bit mystical . . . like taking a seminar on quantum physics.
Here’s the point, though: The best urban leaders I’ve known were, consciously or not, systems thinkers. No, they don’t use the language or draw the charts, but as they looked at problems they too searched for context, change and causes. And they knew there were no simple, one-shot answers for complex problems.
And more: They discovered in many cases that the ultimate answer did not lie in addressing the problem they began with (say, crime in an urban neighborhood, the unkempt yards of foreclosed houses in the suburbs, or pedestrian fatalities along a busy highway), but in changing the system itself in some way—the elements and interactions that were causing crime, unsightliness or dangerous conditions.
Some of these changes might be obvious (closing a neighborhood crack house), some might not (setting up after-school programs to keep children away from temptation). But these leaders learned two things through experience: First, you can’t change complex systems by doing one big thing. You change them by doing a number of smaller things in a coordinated way. Second, you can’t make these changes alone; it usually takes a team of outsiders plus the active participation of those in the system.
Let’s take a relatively simple case, the unkempt yards issue. Most suburban communities have ordinances requiring that lawns be mowed even if houses are unoccupied. But the foreclosure process creates a legal gray area as ownership moves from one party to another. During that time, it’s often impossible to tell who owns the house. Yes, the city can send out its own mowing crews and attach liens to cover the cost, but the paperwork is daunting, the process inefficient and reimbursement a long way off. And, in truth, city governments have better things to do. It’s much, much better if the house doesn’t remain unoccupied for long, and that means speeding up the foreclosure process, making it easier to rent houses, or both. But what city controls foreclosure laws? (They’re the province of state governments.) And suburban homeowners are rarely happy about having renters next door.
To change the system so that houses don’t fall into disrepair, then, requires a lot of small solutions working together: Swifter legal processes, banks that are convinced to maintain their properties, incentives for placing renters in foreclosed houses, a neighborhood that accepts rental properties as preferable to abandoned ones, and neighborhood associations that are quick to report those who aren’t playing by the rules.
Looking over the list, you realize that no single individual or institution “owns” all these solutions. They are spread among several levels of government and independent agencies (judges, for example, have a big say in what gets priority in their courts), through the private sector (the banks must be willing to cooperate) and civil society (someone has to speak for the neighbors).
Another thought may come to you: This isn’t an exceptional problem; this is a standard-issue problem. In American communities, our problems are often complex and power is dispersed by design.
So how do you deal with systemic problems when no one’s in charge? This is the heart of modern civic leadership: It is about being the one who can create consensus among independent interests for solutions that benefit all—and then seeing that the solutions are carried out. It’s not glamorous work. It’s painstaking, “small-p” political work that involves chipping away at obstacles and bringing interests together. (Elsewhere, I’ve referred to it as “removing the boulders” and “building the wall”.)
There are rewards for this kind of work. First, it can result in actual solutions—or, at least, better bad situations—because you’ve dealt with root causes. Second, you manufacture a form of power along the way. The ability to solve problems is the most important power a civic leader can have. It’s not the province of elected officials alone; it can be done by philanthropists, business leaders, nonprofit executives, neighborhood leaders—or by institutions and organizations, like universities, foundations or chambers of commerce.
The keys are to see problems systemically, practice the art of consensus-building and focus on results. And if you like to draw charts, well, that’s a bonus.