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Places to Intervene in a System
Jeremy Faludi, 12 Jul 04

This article by Donella (Dana) Meadows, founder of the Sustainability Institute and co-author of Limits to Growth (among other things) is not new, but I recently heard about it, and it's worth sharing. The full text of Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System is on the Sustainability Institute's website.

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in "leverage points." These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything...

"People know intuitively where leverage points are. Time after time I've done an analysis of a company, and I've figured out a leverage point. Then I've gone to the company and discovered that everyone is pushing it in the wrong direction !" ...Counterintuitive. That's Forrester's word to describe complex systems. The systems analysts I know have come up with no quick or easy formulas for finding leverage points. [but the following is a rough guide]

"Places to Intervene in a System"
(listed in order of increasing effectiveness)

12. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (e.g. transport networks, population age structures)
9. The length 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 what kinds of information)
5. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints)
3. 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 goals, rules, feedback structure arise
1. The power to transcend paradigms

There are detailed explanations of each item in the article, and it's worth the read. It would also be interesting to compare her list with the strategic approach of a different systems-related industry, like the electronics world. They may have rules of thumb that social/environmental people haven't heard of.

Meadows ended the article by saying, "I don't think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go."

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For what it's worth, I posted a link to a shorter version of her piece (in WER) in January. This gives more detail, though. Thanks!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 12 Jul 04

Yeah, Alex just pointed that out to me.. Next time I'll check our archives before posting old news...

Posted by: Jer on 12 Jul 04



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