ILR School

Erasing Red Lines: Part 2 - Systems Thinking for Social and Community Change

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What, if anything, can be done to push back against persistently uneven geographies of opportunity in Buffalo and other post-industrial, shrinking cities? And why the focus on systems science and its technical jargon? A response to both of these questions is that vicious cycles and ways out of them cannot be fully apprehended without thinking about the systems in which they are produced—and systems thinking is rarely the default toolbox that policymakers and community change organizations employ when defining and attempting to solve a social problem. As such, proposed “solutions” to complex social problems are often one-dimensional and aimed at single symptoms rather than root causes.On that backdrop, the remainder of this brief report describes and applies a tool for systems thinking in community economic development. Notably, the tool comes from the systems science literature, meaning that it is not new. Nor, importantly, is it alone. Numerous tools are available, from a variety of sources, to bring systems thinking to bear on conversations and policy discourses related to social and community change.14 Readers are encouraged to engage with as many of these sources and tools as possible to become better systems thinkers. The point of highlighting just one resource here is that the selected tool—the iceberg model of systems thinking—is: (1) simple; (2) easy and effective for beginners to use to identify and think about leverage points in a system; and (3) a useful lens through which to view selected attempts to Erase Red Lines and push back against persistent uneven geographies of opportunity in Buffalo, NY. The next section introduces and unpacks the iceberg model. From there, a miniature, Buffalo-based case study engages with the model for illustrative purposes. Together, the description of the model and the lessons from the case study inform a concluding section that offers optimism for affecting transformational change, and Erasing Red Lines, in disadvantaged communities.

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data; high road; economic development; housing; neighborhoods; land use; community development


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