Reflecting on a Dynamical Systems Theory (DST) Workshop in Comuna 5, Medellin

Editor's note:

Along with the Youth, Peace, and Security program director, Dr. Beth Fisher-Yoshida, program coordinator, Joan Camilo Lopez, facilitated a Systems Thinking and Dynamical Systems Theory (DST) workshop with youth community leaders at Comuna 5, Medellin last February. Here he shares his reflections.

Joan Lopez
Beth Fisher-Yoshida
April 30, 2019

The explicit objectives of this workshop were to explore, together with local leaders in Castilla, the dynamics of peace-building and conflict, to share a new tool with them, and to step into our next phase of the Social Lab Castilla. DST was the primary tool we introduced at the workshop, as a way to collectively see the status quo and opportunities for intervention in Castilla.

Where the workshop took place was important to us. It was held in UVA Sin Fronteras, a sports and recreation complex located in Comuna 5. The space was built and financed by Medellin’s Municipality and brought to life or “dynamized,” as local community leaders say, by the events, proposals, and projects that take place there. For the most part, local community leaders execute the programs as well as design, finance, and coordinate them. UVAs in Medellin are important spaces where all different levels or groups of society interact, including government, civil society, local leadership, and private sector. As such, this space can be seen as an inhibitor of conflict dynamics; that is to say, it slows down or transforms conflict dynamics.

We designed the curriculum in a way that would elicit the participatory and emergent approach we were bringing. We went with particular models to teach, i.e., the Dynamical Systems Theory (known as DST) and Systems Thinking. An overarching goal was for the participants to have a fresh perspective of looking at the complex systems of which they are a part.

Our guiding question was: Why aren’t things worse in Castilla? Given the circumstances, past and current, and the force of the factors that feed the conflict in this sector of the city, what accounts for residents’ ability to walk the streets in spite of invisible borders set by gangs? How have people continued to create meaningful personal and social relationships, raise their children, and maintain their livelihoods, in spite of protracted social conflicts? To be sure, there are factors that inhibit conflicts, such as public spaces like the UVA, present in the system that act to maintain some sort of equilibrium between peace and conflict.

Around 25 participants attended. Prompted with the guiding question, participants discussed and then wrote down reflections and responses. The white walls of the room started to become colorful with post-it notes of the factors contributing to peacekeeping in the comuna.  Together they identified: graffiti artists, youth leaders, single mothers, networks of cooperation, friendships, natural resources, educational programs, the barber who acts as a mediator between neighbors, and many more. Along with these, we identified the factors that reinforce the dynamics of conflict, and how all of these factors were related. The relationships identified through reinforcing and inhibiting feedback loops showed the dynamics of the system and how both the positive and the negative are determined in these relationships. At the end, we had a map of the whole system… the status quo of Castilla. The question at this point was, “How to transform it?”

As this workshop was meant to take us into the next phase of the Social Lab Castilla—the prototyping phase—, we mapped out a possible intervention to the system. Through conversations and debates, the group reached a consensus: let’s beautify our neighborhood! We identified factors that would contribute to a better co-existence of residents of Castilla if the territory was beautified, and the possible unintended consequences of this intervention.

On the one hand, a beautiful neighborhood might lead to more people visiting which could improve economic conditions for some due to tourists but, on the other hand, armed actors might feel threatened by visitors “taking” their territories. Children would feel proud of being raised in a beautiful environment, but processes of gentrification can also be initiated. Rich conversations emerged as we mapped out this intervention and its possible unintended consequences. During our debriefing session, some claimed that among the factors that reinforce the dynamics of conflict is that of linear thinking; our hitherto inability to think and act systemically. Voila! This reinforces for us that the wisdom is in the system and it is a matter of identifying ways of tapping into it to truly transform communities from within.

Three key takeaways we drew from our collective exploration of Castilla’s complex system are:

  • There are factors present in the system, which if identified and strengthened, can drastically transform the dynamics of the system for good; our negation to acknowledge this can sometimes frustrate us to the point of non-action.
  • The systems we inhabit and strive to transform are highly complex. Deep transformations can only take place by systemically tackling deep rooted factors that maintain and reinforce conflicts, such as deep-rooter cultural behaviors that make us tolerate conflicts and perpetuate them, like paying “la vacuna”, or an extorsion collected by gangs, for the sake of keeping the neighborhood “secured”.   This takes time and a level of consciousness that takes us to look beyond the conditions of the status quo. In fact, in order for there to be systemic social transformation there has to be a respect for time; just like social problems develop and become strengthened in relation to time, so too, the transformations of such social problems need time in order to have an effect.
  • The first step into building this level of consciousness is to recognize the complexity of the system we inhabit, and more importantly, our role in it.

With this collective mapping experience, youth community leaders and AC4’s Youth, Peace, and Security program transitioned into the next phase of the Social Lab Castilla project. After the initial phases of the Lab, which were completely devoted to identifying the key players (people and institutions), and then observing and sensing together the system that the lab seeks to transform, the next phase looks to co-create possible interventions. From a systemic and complexity lens, the lab will initiate a co-creation process to produce and set in motion strategic tools to transform the deep-rooted social problems that affect the youth of Castilla.