Fresh Perspectives in Community Development:
Community-Based System Dynamics: An Essential Tool in the Community Development Toolbox


Ellen O'Neill

The world of community development is often complex, requiring savvy professionals able to navigate a complicated web of interdependent issues such as housing, generational poverty, financial capability, social and economic mobility, employment and education. As community development professionals, we trade in systems—systems of complex social problems hosting many different actors, policies, programs, assets and resources. Donella Meadows, a scholar in the field of system dynamics, defines a system as a set of things—people, cells, molecules, etc.—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The communities we serve are not facing challenges accompanied by simple solutions. We operate in complex systems, no matter which community we call ours. This is why community-based system dynamics (CBSD) is a critical tool in our professional community development toolbox.

CBSD brings stakeholders together in a calculated, structured facilitation designed to improve our understanding of systems at play in our communities. It is a participatory approach that includes communities in the process of understanding and changing systems from the endogenous perspective of system dynamics. Informal maps and formal, simulated models are used to uncover and understand sources of behavior with the goal of solving problems by improving the mental models individuals possess. CBSD is about engaging communities, helping them create models leading to system insights and solutions, stakeholder empowerment, and mobilization of communities to advocate for, and implement changes based on, these insights.1

A mental model of a system, it is worth noting, is a cognitive representation of the real system. We use mental models to navigate the world from the time we wake up to the time we fall asleep. Frequently, we rely on mental models to solve a wide variety of problems and to make sense of the world around us. Mental models of a system can be very useful. For example, an accumulation of dirty dishes in the sink is accompanied by a mental model of the system that produced an excess of dirty dishes. This mental model could include the presumption that someone else will do the dishes, a supposed scarcity of dish soap or a perceived lack of time to clean the dishes. The factors that comprise our mental models dictate how we approach solving the problem, regardless of the accuracy of our model.

There is nothing wrong with relying on mental models. In fact, it would be impossible to successfully navigate an entire day without relying on our own personal models. However, there are times when flawed mental models can contribute to the problems we are experiencing. In these situations, specifically pertaining to community development, we are making decisions relying on the wrong set of assumptions, perceptions and inferences, which are, in turn, not solving problems and often making matters worse.

The focus of CBSD is on understanding and solving problems by challenging mental models held by individual participants in the session. Informal maps and formal simulation models provide a means to make our mental models more explicit and test assumptions. Often, the process of developing the model leads to counterintuitive insights about the structure and behavior of a system, which leads to solutions that challenge conventional wisdom and approaches to community development.

Recently, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis convened six CBSD sessions—two each in St. Louis, Evansville, Ind., and Memphis, Tenn.—to discuss financial decision-making and well-being among underserved populations. Each session was approximately three hours long, culminating in the development of a model. These sessions allowed stakeholders to challenge and adjust their mental models of financial decision-making and well-being, identify unintended consequences of the system and uncover connections between previously unconsidered determinants of financial health. It challenged participants to venture outside of a traditional cause-and-effect, linear conceptualization of the world and, as a result, to adapt their mental models accordingly.

We all intuitively know how to navigate systems; we function as part of an infinite number of systems in our daily lives. The mental models we have built as community development professionals regarding housing, generational poverty, financial capability, social and economic mobility, employment and education frequently dictate our attempts to solve these challenges. Perhaps it is time to apply a new tool to community development that allows us to challenge our mental models, help us uncover sources of system behavior and empower our communities to advocate for change in the process. By engaging in rigorous contemplation of the systems and mental models driving our communities, we can begin to develop sustainable, effective social policies and interventions.


  1. Hovmand, Peter: Community Based System Dynamics, Springer, 2014. [ back to text ]