Last week I was lucky enough to spend 8 whole days in the mountains of Slovenia with a committed group of people studying biomimicry for social innovation. Working with Life’s Principles, we all spent time seeking knowledge and inspiration that would allow us to take a step further on our journey as activist for social, environmental, organisational and systems change.

Looking at the way in which nature manages ‘disturbances’ in the landscape — how avalanches, rockfalls and trees coming down pave the way for pioneer species to leap into life or clear a space for light to reach new growth — I was reminded of all the rich learning from Donella Meadows on the many leverage points there are for interventions in complex systems. Or how to ‘create’ a disturbance.  So I borrow from her wonderful paper “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” to summarise and hopefully provide some correlating examples.  I’ll follow her list in order from least effective to most effective even though many years ago she wrote a caveat that this list could oscillate and change just like nature does.

12. Constants, parameters, numbers

People care deeply about parameters, because they can have a direct impact on individuals. They are politically popular. Therefore politics often focuses on them when they should be looking at more powerful interventions. Consider the current candidates for leadership of the Tory Party and how swiftly they got into taxation change.

Unforunately they rarely change a whole system. Playing with interest rates hasn’t made the possibility of financial crashes any less likely. Though it’s contentious to say it, increasing police numbers does not make the causes of crime go away, it just means they are fractionally easier to police. Setting air quality targets for cities might improve air quality but it doesn’t remove the source of pollution. Set-aside helps biodiversity somewhat, but it hasn’t stopped plummeting insect populations or crashing fertility in our soils dead in its tracks.

So can numbers interventions ever have any impact above a mitigating one? Are they worth considering at all?

One of the world’s most famous interventions by numbers by a state was China’s policy of one child families which lasted for almost 35 years. Established by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 to restrict communist China’s population growth by limiting couples to having only one child, the policy was enforced by fines, pressures to abort a pregnancy, and even forced sterilization of women after second or subsequent pregnancies. The policy was restricted to ethnic Han Chinese living in urban areas; citizens living in rural areas and minorities living in China were not subject to the law.

Though the one-child policy may have had the goal of preventing the country’s population from spiralling out of control, after several decades, there were concerns over its cumulative demographic effect. The proportion of males to females was significantly skewed in favour of males, the country had a shrinking workforce and a smaller young population to take care of the number of elderly people in ensuing decades. In 2013, the country eased the policy to allow some families to have two children. In late 2015, Chinese officials announced the scrapping the policy altogether, allowing all couples to have two children. The social impact of this policy is still playing out in China.

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows

If we think in terms of water flow into a watershed, the stocks come from rainfall but are captured in reservoirs, lakes and run through rivers to te sea. Reservoirs act as a buffer to the needs of the population in the area, should there be drought.

The energy grid in the UK has to keep a buffer of available energy to allow for the upsurge in demand following a particularly dramatic episode of Eastenders. The fluctuations in oil prices come about because drilling or oil and the subsequent accumulations of available stock cause the market to shift constantly.

Buffers and stabilising stocks — by virtue of their physicality and size — are rarely rapid points of intervention because they take a long time to build. You can’t build more reservoirs, nuclear power plants, naval warships overnight. But they can be important indicators of crisis.  The capacity of reservoirs is consistent, but if the inflow into them is increasing year on year, alarm bells should ring about the stability of this buffer.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures)

The structure of many things which have an impact on the regenerative future we want are incredibly hard to change. Let’s consider cities as one example. Many cities are many hundreds of years old. They were designed for different circumstances than the fossil-fuel based era. London is a jumble of small villages grown into a metropolis that has completely inadequate traffic flows for the number of people and vehicles that want to travel through and around it. The same is true of Paris and many other European capitals.

Istanbul is an even older city on the cusp of Europe and the Middle East that now houses just under 15 million people. It sits astride the Bosphorus with both a European and Asian centre. The most rapid growth in the city came during the late 20th century when its population increased from 983,000 in 1950 to 10,923,000 by the turn of the century. The population has grown partly from expanding the city limits, especially in the 1980s when inhabitants doubled in number.

During this period of rapid expansion, it could be argued that insufficient thought was given to the future quality of life of its population. Inclusion of green spaces, use of sustainable building materials were not on the agenda as the city expanded. Concrete was. With easy access to this most attractive and unsustainable of materials, Istanbul — other than the very neglected centre with a few remaining buildings of wooden architecture, is now a true concrete jungle — albeit one with a welcoming heart and a beautiful aspect out over the Bosphorus. In April I was lucky enough to work with a group of people to reimagine the future of Istanbul. Re-greening the city came high on their list.

Physical structure is crucial in a system, but changing it is almost never quick, simple and certainly never cheap. The goal is better design in the first place which we have the knowledge to do from new cities to housing developments.

China’s challenge with water availability and distribution are well known. Its underwater acquifers have been depleting rapidly for several decades resulting in the threat of subsidence to major cities. The overall design of economic and industrial activity in China does not correlate well to where the availability of water is — in the south. This water cannot be used by the population of 12 Chinese provinces representing 41% of its total population, 38% of Chinese agriculture, 46% of its industry, and 50% of its power generation.

The South North Water Transfer Project (SNWTP) is a mega-scale engineering project designed to divert 44.8 billion cubic meters of water from the south to the north, desalination plants, and raising the price of water are other solutions the Chinese government is exploring (see above for why price is unlikely to be helpful) but most of these are slow and also confront the problem that much of the water in the south is already so polluted it would be unfit for agricultural use.

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change

Making a national decision to invest in nuclear as part of a country’s energy strategy takes many decades to have an impact because it takes many decades to build new nuclear plants. Similarly choosing to invest in rail infrastructure as we have seen with H20 doesn’t happen overnight.

So what we know about delay is that it’s likely to be pretty inefficient when it comes to activating change. Where it can be effective however, is when it comes to slowing down the rate of change in a system so that you have time to respond adequately. There is nowhere this could have been (and possibly still is) more pertinent than in the rate of economic growth. The current technology innovation race is not always successfully taken advantage of by business because they are still using archaic and inadequate systems to take advantage of new technology and ideas and are unable to change at the same speed of a start up for example. Slowing economic growth – although this has happened to a degree through recession – has allowed some industries to catch up and leverage the exponential tech explosion. 

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against

They’re not always in action — you don’t always shiver to stay warm or sweat to cool down — but your body’s systems are ready to leap into action if they need to. They are like emergency buttons.

Donella explains: “The “strength” of a negative loop — its ability to keep its appointed stock at or near its goal — depends on the combination of all its parameters and links — the accuracy and rapidity of monitoring, the quickness and power of response, the directness and size of corrective flows.”

Several important factors which allow negative feedback loops to keep human systems in check are currently eroding rapidly. The first is democracy which is under fire across the Western world as populism and radical right and left wing ideologies resurge in the face of social turmoil, unexpresed fear and uncertainty. The second is access to reliable information being obfuscated through digitalised hacking otherwise known as fake news. The third is the attractiveness to governments and legislators of messing up the market price dynamic to hide the true cost of goods, especially through subsidies, not incorporating externalities, taxation — in other words constants, parameters & numbers.

Some of Donella’s cited examples of where negative feedback loops have had positive effects in social systems include:-

  • preventive medicine, exercise, and good nutrition to bolster the body’s ability to fight disease
  • integrated pest management to encourage natural predators of crop pests
  • the Freedom of Information Act to reduce government secrecy
  • monitoring systems to report on environmental damage
  • protection for whistleblowers
  • impact fees, pollution taxes, and performance bonds to recapture the externalized public costs of private benefits

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops

Positive feedback loops are sources of growth, explosion, erosion, and collapse in systems. In the normal course of events, they are usually interrupted by a negative feedback loop.

Population and economic growth rates in the world model are leverage points, because slowing them gives the many negative loops, through technology and markets and other forms of adaptation, all of which have limits and delays, time to function. It’s the same as slowing the car when you’re driving too fast, rather than calling for more responsive brakes or technical advances in steering. Donella Meadows

There are many strong positive feedback loops in social structure which reinforce privilege. Wealthy parents can send their children to private education, privately educated children are more likely to gain powerful roles as we’ve seen in a report out in the UK today. Wealthy organisations (banks) charge interest, poorer people pay it. These are commonly known as ‘success to the successful’ loops. If you can intervene at this level in a system you have a very good chance of effecting change. That is what better state education, quotas for non-privately educated students at Oxbridge or Harvard and similar institutions are intended to do, for example.

Any place where the more you have of something, the more you have the possibility of having more, is a good place for an intervention.

6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information)

The EU Company Law Package of 2018 include provisions on corporate governance and transparency for banks and investment firms to curb risks to the financial stability.

The UK Pollution Inventory (PI) has been developed to collate information on annual mass releases of specified substances to air controlled waters and sewers as well as quantities of waste transferred off site from large industrial sites.

When there are no feedback loops in a system, there’s usually a stock or effectiveness crash of some sort. Fishing stocks can collapse, as we have seen around the world, because there is no feedback loop between stocks of fish and increase in fishing vessels or advanced and more ‘efficient’ technology types of ground trawling. As fish becomes more scarce, the price increases and so it becomes even more popular to go out and catch more of the scarce commodity — a good way to show why price is not a reliable feedback indicator. Soil fertility can collapse because there is no reliable feedback loop in place to correlate the collective impact of industrial agricultural practices — from monocropping to increased use of fertiliser/insecticides and even climate change.

The challenge when instituting interventions around information is to avoid the capitalist driven race to the bottom. If you publish information about a decline in available minerals, companies will zoom in to try to control and profit from, the scarcity.

I love some of Donella’s more radical ideas for interventions here!

Suppose taxpayers got to specify on their return forms what government services their tax payments must be spent on. (Radical democracy!) Suppose any town or company that puts a water intake pipe in a river had to put it immediately DOWNSTREAM from its own outflow pipe. Suppose any public or private official who made the decision to invest in a nuclear power plant got the waste from that plant stored on his/her lawn. Suppose (this is an old one) the politicians who declare war were required to spend that war in the front lines.

The challenge with this type of intervention is it so often has to be instituted by the people in power — usually through legislation — who have the least to gain by instituting the changes!

5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints)

But they can be transformative. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR and opened information flows (glasnost) and changed the economic rules (perestroika), it wasn’t long before communism collapsed. The people who have power over the making of rules, have power indeed. This is one of the key reasons that Donald Trump (or any president of the US) so wants to control appointments to the Supreme Court in the USA.

What we desperately need at this crossroads of environmental and social crisis, is new sets of rules that reward actions that are likely to encourage the right kind of behaviour and system functionality that could at least, favour those constraining further degradation of our environmental and social justice systems.

Imagination plays a strong part here. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine a new set of rules. What if? the favourite question of innovators is always worth playing with. What if we had subsidies that supporter organic food systems instead of industrial agriculture? What if we ruled against gross disparity in salaries between C-suite and employees? What if we instituted tax breaks for all renewable energy, organic food, localised business structure, better water management in business? You could go on forever. And we should. But the very first place we should start is legislating against lobbying.

4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure

Self-organization is basically a matter of an evolutionary raw material — a highly variable stock of information from which to select possible patterns — and a means for experimentation, for selecting and testing new patterns. For biological evolution the raw material is DNA, one source of variety is spontaneous mutation, and the testing mechanism is something like punctuated Darwinian selection. Donella Meadows.

The intervention points here are multiple, but can be unpopular because they are threatening to those in ‘control’ and therefore need a lot of support through coaching and reflection processes.

When I was asked to experiment with creating greater autonomy and creativity in teams to encourage entrepreneurial qualities for a global pharmaceutical company, the rapid result was lot of fear around loss of control in a regulated enviornment (which ws unlikely to happen). It also caused senior managers to question their role and viability. It was a small experiment but it had an impact.

Encouraging variability and experimentation and diversity means ‘losing control’ to many minds. Let Extinction Rebellion shut down the stock market? Let’s unglue them and ensure we pursue every possible court case to deter them. Let the students go on climate strike and who knows where that could lead! Let’s shut that down or inflict punishments to discourage them.

It’s also perceived as very difficult to shift a hierarchically designed organisation to a more self-managed, emergent culture — and that’s true. But where the benefits in a volatile, unpredictable world include a greater possibility of survival, more motivated and engaged employees, they are not to be sniffed at.

3. The goals of the system

There are many different layers and levels to goals within a system, so let’s try to start at the highest level possible. What’s the goal of the corporate business system? To gather more and more human life under the control and influence of its system, which is does by creating dependencies and hierarchy. What was the goal of Napoleon? To gather more and more of Europe under the exclusive control of the French Empire. What is the goal of a cancer? To engulf the living organism it inhabits.

Unfortunately that doesn’t happen quite so efficiently in human systems. In fact the goal of the existing human system is to perpetuate and protect itself ad infinitum — only currently we are pursuing that goal through anthropocentricity — humans first (even worse than America First) to the exclusion of other life forms (ecosystems) and consequently we have almost irrevocably disturbed the balance of the planetary self-regulating system.

In her paper from which this whole article is drawn Donella Meadows refers to the impact Ronald Reagan had on the US system through his insistence that the goal is not go get the people to help the government and not to get government to help the people, but to get government off our backs. The thoroughness with which the public discourse in the U.S. and even the world has been changed since Reagan is testimony to the high leverage of articulating, meaning, repeating, standing up for, insisting upon new system goals. She didn’t live to see the current incumbent’s capacity to change the goal of the national narrative and the role of the office of the President. Both are testimony to how one single person at the top of a power hierarchy can actually change a system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises

Long before I was born, the rules and structures were set during the empire expansions out of Europe in 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. They grew out of a mindset of anthropocentric separation. Separation of humans from nature so that we could happily plunder, extract and control. Separation of humans from other humans through tribalism, racism, war and division. Separation of humans from ourselves by the mechanisation of industry which designed organisations as machines and people as cogs in the ever growing wheels.

There are more rules than can be fitted into a Medium article but white supremacy, male supremacy (being gradually chipped away), extraction from the global south for the benefit of the global north (colonialism), anthropocentricity (humans first before nature or any other life form), competition and scarcity supported by survival of the fittest (distortion of Darwin), constant growth is good, are among some of the most pernicious which underpin that paradigm in Western society.

Donella highlighted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, and as I can’t find a better one….

Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to … their state of thought. Observe how every truth and every error, each a thought of some man’s mind, clothes itself with societies, houses, cities, language, ceremonies, newspapers. Observe the ideas of the present day … see how timber, brick, lime, and stone have flown into convenient shape, obedient to the master idea reigning in the minds of many persons…. It follows, of course, that the least enlargement of ideas … would cause the most striking changes of external things.

So how do you change a paradigm? A mindset? Buckminster Fuller said “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old one obsolete.” Einstein famously may not have said; “We cannot solve the problems we have made with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Both of which suggest you model the change you want to see. Be the change. Changing societies is incredibly hard; they resist mindset shifts with enormous energy. One of the critical factors is having enough people with a new mindset embedded into the old structures of power to keep pushing it forwards. You target the middle ground of educated people with minds that are open enough and curious enough to welcome change. You concentrate on building effective and active systemic change agents.

Some wisdom suggests you avoid reactionary activists completely, even though they can provoke major moments of mindset shift for individuals, they don’t change systems. The Occupy movement is testament to that, but the suffragette movement and hopefully the recent uprising of Extinction Rebellion and Gretha Thunberg will have more long lasting impact.

Otto scharmer’s ULab and suporting Theory U change method are amongst the  best organised efforts for societal transformation. Although it occasionally received criticism for effectiveness, this is a long birthing process and the positive impact of the huge amount of small efforts to activate transformation in society, business and self worldwide will only be felt when we (hopefully) look back from a different future.

Only yesterday I read a beautiful paper from Venezuela on the 3 year programme designed by Helio Borges and his colleagues in a country torn by radical disturbance in its systems.

1. The power to transcend paradigms

I’ll leave the last word to Donella Meadows:

It is in this space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.


Donella Meadows Leverage Points