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Endings are Beginnings

September 11, 2013 Leave a comment

 “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.”
—Lao Tzu

fallen tree

I, like many in the systems thinking community, was saddened to see the demise this past spring of Pegasus Communications. For over twenty years, this lively little company had created and distributed user-friendly resources that enabled managers, teachers, and change agents of all stripes to act with greater understanding of the dynamic interdependencies in their operating environments. The Pegasus annual conference was like a family reunion to a community of people who see systems literacy as essential to our survival as a species.

At the same time, being systems thinkers, members of this community are not inclined to dwell too long in a state of sadness and loss. Instead, they are quick to recognize that, as in any living system where death gives rise to new life, the abandonment of old forms is a necessary component of learning and growth.

Just as the fallen trees I saw while hiking in Pennsylvania last month provide fertile ground for the emergence of new organisms—and the renewal of the forest—so the passing of Pegasus creates a space ripe with possibilities for innovation.

It is into this space that Siraj Sirajuddin of Temenos has entered, with great spirit and optimism, to host the 23rd Annual Systems Thinking in Action Conference, November 14–16, 2013 in the Washington, DC area (in beautiful Leesburg, VA). I am sure that the inextinguishable curiosity, creativity, and energy of the systems thinking community will make this a stimulating and memorable new beginning.

Art Changes Everything

February 14, 2012 4 comments

“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points.’ These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” — Donella Meadows

Last week, at the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Statewide Assembly, my fellow members of the Reading Cultural Council and I were tickled to be recognized for our advocacy “on behalf of arts and culture across the Commonwealth.” We received the honor for making this brief video to highlight the community impact of projects we had funded.

The event had me thinking about “support for the arts” as a leverage point for change. When I consider where Donella Meadows might have ranked it in her famous list of twelve progressively effective Places to Intervene in a System, my guess is…she’d have put it right at the top.

Why? Because art and culture allow us to continually reexamine the “shared idea in the minds of society, the great big unstated assumptions…or deepest set of beliefs” that constitute what Meadows called our society’s paradigm. The arts help us stand outside that paradigm from time to time and see it for what it is—temporary, relational, evolving. That’s a powerful leverage point!

But the most powerful leverage points share an interesting characteristic: They are often counterintuitive and therefore, easy to dismiss or overlook. Support for the arts is no exception. How might we convince public policy makers that by increasing our investment in humble community arts projects we are catalyzing big changes in everything?

At the Assembly, we sat with hundreds of other local arts advocates in the Great Hall of the State House listening as a panel of community leaders discussed the current state of the creative economy. While enthusiasm was high (and we are lucky to live in a State that has just completed multi-million dollar additions to two of its flagship arts institutions) the subtext of the conversation was clear: Promoting public policy that recognizes the aggregate impact of community arts requires constant vigilance.

Despite data showing strong returns on investment for every public dollar expended on arts and culture, most legislators are content to let arts-related spending languish at bare minimum levels. Except among the most dedicated artists and art lovers, support for the arts is deemed a luxury, not a priority.

You’ll have an easier time finding a policy maker eager to invest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) the vaunted antidote to America’s declining stature as the world’s economic and innovation leader. But as WGBH president Jonathan Abbott noted during the panel discussion, to leave the arts out of that picture is folly. He endorsed the idea that STEM education be expanded to STEAM, to include the Arts, so vital to stimulating the imagination that leads to scientific breakthrough.

Largely obscured in this discussion is a more fundamental and potent leverage point: The power of the arts to engender solutions to expensive and disabling social woes. Yes, the arts generate exponential economic activity. Yes, the arts stimulate scientific breakthrough. But most important, with projects like the MCC’s 2012 Gold Star winners, the arts help us shed our prejudices, connect across cultural barriers, turn toward aspiration and away from fear. Live together. Grow together. Create together. Come to understand ourselves.

I’ll invest in that. How about you?