For as long as I’ve been observing the arts and culture world through a ‘systems’ lens, I’ve been frustrated by the number of apparently broken systems. Thoughtful people in experienced communities building cultural facilities that are too large for their goals. Smart individuals making odd and upside-down decisions when part of a governing board. Foundations earnestly leading an entire community or artistic discipline into greater instability with their grants.
Everywhere you look there are systems of people and activities that seem to deliver results contrary to their stated goals. Politics. Education. Philanthropy. City planning. And on and on.
But a short while ago, I started playing a new game when I began to obsess about a broken system. I ignore the stated or assumed goals of the enterprise, and I assume the actual outcomes were exactly the ones intended. In other words, I imagine the system not as broken, but as brutally efficient at delivering some other end.
Imagine the construction of extremely large cultural facilities, for example — both large in capital expense, and in on-going operational overhead. Often, the stated goals of these capital projects were to increase the vitality and impact of the arts for a community. And yet equally often, their result is risk-aversion, tighter budgets, higher rents, and a large philanthropic sucking sound away from variable creative production expense toward the gaping maw of fixed overhead expense.
Mapped against stated goals, massive cultural construction can sound like the result of a broken system. But imagine the alternative view, that the outcome was exactly aligned with intent. Imagine that the chief executive, the lead donor, the project architect, and even the public officials are all inclined toward a bold public space — as large and as technically excellent as current capital will allow. Then the system isn’t inefficient, but rather it’s terrifyingly efficient at delivering the unstated goal.
As another example, a colleague of mine is working hard to energize a community through the arts and artists. A primary challenge has been broken-down storefronts and commercial property that’s fallen below the zoning code, and desperately requires investment and innovation. When we assume that all owners would want a more vital and vibrant use for their property, the system seems oddly resistent to even simple interventions that cost little and could gain much. But what if, instead, the system of broken buildings is actually delivering exactly what’s intended (for someone who has a say in the matter)? What if the landlords — often absent or distant owners in search of tax write-offs — prefer a closed and broken neighborhood to an open and active one?
These alternate outcomes don’t need to be nefarious or even intentional. But the pull of other intents, or the assumptions about the best means to get there, can certainly play a role in unexpected results.
It’s a thinking game, I’ll admit. One without consistent utility. But every now and then, it can be extremely useful to consider an apparently broken system as entirely effective, but toward a different end. If your goal is to change the direction of that system toward a different outcome or behavior, it’s best to know what tidal forces you’ll be swimming against.