Mental Models and Community Collaboration

BY: Pamela A. Neronha, MPA

The private sector and free market capitalism exists within a government regulatory environment that restricts its actions. Collaboration implies co-creation, compromise, shared vision and goals, one democratic, public policy-driven process that is optimistically working towards a unified outcome. However, when we have system structures that lead to behaviors and ultimately consequences (including the unintended ones) that are not shared visions of all stakeholders, then we often start over, labeling policies as unworkable, unfeasible, or unmanageable.

One of the challenges any community has is facing the fact that individuals in a community often lack a shared vision and goals; that we have mental models that prevent us from dreaming that vision into reality. We put 90% of our efforts into implementation, frequently promoting action of a policy that is not a shared vision. We spend only 10% of our time gathering information and modeling our visions. Part of our problem is that the system of politics, policy, and business is based on a logical, non-holistic model. Those having an economic focus will lean towards the importance of efficiency and relate the success of a policy in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Systematic processes and rationality valued by engineers and scientists would be the preferred approach to policy, while the political scientist might evaluate a policy more in terms of public participation and democracy. Those having a sociological focus might look solely at what groups ultimately benefit from the policy.

We cannot co-create a sustainable world if we see these aspects as separate. Holism implies policies which totally embrace socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable visions. We need to remember what John Muir once said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This is systems thinking, and we can use levers to intervene. For instance, we could start with restructuring information flows: how much water are we using and when? How much food are we wasting and how? How many are homeless and why? We could also change the rules: public health departments could allow capture of rainwater for drinking; local groceries would need to transfer bruised produce to the local food bank; “housing first” becomes the model to stabilize the lives of the homeless. We could adjust the goals: what is our true vision – our dream – for localized use and conservation of water; for local and regional production of food; for adequate and safe shelter for the homeless.

If we dare to shift the paradigm, which requires challenging our entrenched mental models, then we can really begin to change our world, starting with our home in Mount Shasta and the greater Siskiyou region. We need to begin with evaluating closely our local and regional communities – their social, resource, and environmental strengths and weaknesses; what can be used, conserved, or rehabilitated. Homeless individuals need to be considered active stakeholders in creating the new system. Water control needs to be centralized, providing a watershed approach to sustainability. Our increasingly global connectivity network reveals our dependencies, influence, and vulnerabilities at a local level. Now, are we up to the challenge to start addressing our mental models? The evolutionary future of our communities is truly at stake. We can do this together!