Tuesday, 07 July 2020
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Hi All

There appears to be broad acceptance among those concerned about sustainability, circularity, and regeneration that we must rethink the ways that most human-made systems work. But of course, this is a spectacularly challenging undertaking!

I recently stumbled upon an essay called "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System" by Donella Meadows and found it to be a fascinating read.

She proposed the following hierarchy of leverage points:

(in increasing order of effectiveness)

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.

The essay provides details of what each of these items means. If you are trying to create meaningful change in any system, I think that it would be worthwhile considering the relative power of each of these leverage points.

I would be very interested in hearing what others think about this list.

Ideally, you will read the essay before commenting.

Adam Thyer, Founder at GreenExecutive

2 years ago
The survival of society and nature as we know it will require rapid and radical systemic change. A broader awareness and consideration of concepts like these is therefore critically important. Here is a paper which draws on the work of Donella Meadows to, "propose a leverage points perspective as a hitherto under‐recognized heuristic and practical tool for sustainability science." I recommend both of these texts to anyone interested in achieving meaningful change.
2 years ago
Hi. Meadows' essay is a fundamental text in sustainability science (as well as in systems thinking) and known by the heart by people whose work focuses on radical sustainability transformations. Recent work has argued that so far interventions have focused on the "shallow" leverage points (parameters and feedbacks) as these are easier to intervene in (low hanging fruits) and also they are "measurable" so favored by policy-makers who have to legitimize decisions for several stakeholders majority of whom understand "evidence" only if represented by numbers and as systemic sustainability transformations have not been happening, we should instead intervene in the "deep" leverage points (design of systems and intent of systems). These leverage points (no 6-12) are more difficult to intervene in but crucial to be tapped into for transformations. Deep leverage points "govern" shallow ones, e.g. by way of changing worldviews we can redefine what are good measures and how we should measure these (parameters). I highly recommend reading also these discussions on "deep leverage points". Here's link to one: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-016-0800-y
2 years ago
Hi Idil Gaziulusoy

I don't suppose you can recommend any books on the topic?
2 years ago
Hi Jessica,

Not explicitly and specifically on deep leverage points, no. However, for general systems thinking Meadows' book Thinking in Systems is excellent. It gives an accessible overview of core systems concepts. This book is not about sustainability transformations though, however, quite fundamental for understanding how systems operate and can be changed. I strongly recommend this book if you need an "entry" into understanding sustainability from a systems point of view (in my expert opinion, there is no way to understand sustainability than through a systems lens).

Then, there're many books on sustainability transitions and transformations in academic literature some with case studies. I'm not sure which sectors and what kind of transformation work are of interest to you so cannot pinpoint a specific book. However, this book I co-authored on design for sustainability might be of interest, particularly Chapter 11 which focuses on design and innovation in the context of sustainability transitions. We wrote the book with academics and practitioners in mind equally. It's open access and I'm adding the link here: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9780429456510
2 years ago
Hi Idil

Thanks so much for the advice and suggestions!

I look forward to reading your book and will definitely get hold of a copy of Thinking in Systems.

FYI, I am doing curriculum development for a high school environmental studies program and am therefore interested in texts about sustainability transformations that would be accessible to our senior students. We are especially interested in books, papers, videos, or articles describing strategies for achieving the community, business, and political paradigm shifts that will be necessary to create a genuinely green economy. Something created as an introduction to key concepts for undergraduates would be ideal. Even if too advanced for the students, it would still be useful reference material for teachers.

And many thanks to you too James Miller for your comments and link :D
2 years ago
The Open University offers some free courses in systems thinking.
2 years ago
Jessica Martin I came here to say how much I enjoyed the Meadows essay and saw your comment- if I may, I highly recommend "The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience" by Rob Hopkins. Hopkins founded the Transition movement and it centers around community level changes for a sustainable future. I read it as an undergrad and found it easy to read and very entertaining.

2 years ago
I just found this layperson's introduction to systems thinking for sustainability. It might be useful for anyone who is new to the concepts.
1 year ago
Limits to Growth

Thinking in Systems Book Summary by Donella H. Meadows


Donella Meadows is the author of the now famous text, Limits to Growth LTG 1972). It is an application of the posted essay, the gist of which can be reviewed in Thinking in Systems (2002). Both are mandatory reading. One might add to that list, among others, Jay Forrester's World Dynamics (1971), published 50 years ago.

If the world had taken LTG seriously in 1972, we might have effectively addressed the detrimental effects of change on systems, i.e., leverage points. We didn't. As Dennis Meadows reported at the 2015 International System Dynamics Conference, the lack of action means resilience not leverage is now the new normal.

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