Systems, Levers and the futurist Donella Meadows

Photo: Donella Meadows. Credit: Donella Meadows InstituteMany people have heard me ask, “Which lever are we/they supposed to pull?” when activists are being rained on by cynics. It is usually met with blank stares—Are you talking about ancient voting machines or gambling? Quid est hoc vectis? I usually drop the metaphor and move on. But, levers are an important concept in futuring.

I recently acquainted myself with the work of Donella Meadows, an influential environmentalist and systems thinker.  The first of her articles I gravitated toward was “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” Aha! Here I will find out about these levers. I strongly recommend this essay for anyone interested in affecting big change. Aside from being an excellent primer for systems thinking, it introduces a fairly comprehensive  model of where levers could effectively be applied to change systems.

Meadows’s essay  lists 12 places to intervene in systems. I like to think of them as layers in a stack, but her language is cleaner so I’ll stick with calling them places. She organizes the list by “increasing order of effectiveness” with #1 being the most effective.

Donella Meadow’s list of 12 places to intervene in a system
She wrote paragraphs describing each of these in her essay.

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.

What strikes me most about this list is how much activity we all witness and observe every day in places 12 through 5. Think of your average news story or typical workplace discussion. We love our numbers, policies, buffers, structures, time delays, feedback loops, and rules. These aspects of systems feel tangible, like the correct things to talk about. We can  debate and discuss them. These first eight places of leverage are more material and less ethereal.

Places 4 and 3 are more complicated than the first eight, and include topics we often don’t have opportunity or desire to discuss or modify together. Yet, these places, like the first eight, feel attainable—the discussions required to create new goals for our systems or improve upon a system’s ability to modify itself in the face of uncertainty would certainly be challenging, but ultimately worthwhile to focus on. Most groups that have trust together could handle the dialectic strains required to use this lever.

Place 2, “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises,” is far more challenging than any of the prior ones. Most people typically need help gaining an exterior view necessary observe what paradigm we are already in. This place reminds me of current dialogues around privilege, gender, and race. It also reminds me of “cultural layered analysis,” a futuring tool that is useful in revealing broader mindsets  and exploring desirable new possibilities. While Place 2 requires extra work to access, it promises ways to durably modify a system.

Place 1, “transcendence of paradigms,” feels improbable and even new age-y or mystical. How do you even begin? The phrase that sticks out for me in Meadows’s description is “letting go into Not Knowing.” I have found this letting go to be deeply necessary in  futuring. In the future, anything can happen. Acting through the place of transcendence will be important to the evolution of our model of time and broader understanding. There is much work yet to be done to to develop mental models, tools, and means by which we  engage Place 1.

I’m excited to learn more about Donella Meadows and her work. What are your initial reactions to her list of leverage points? Are these the levers we are supposed to pull? What models for thinking about changing systems have you found to be useful in your own efforts? Share your reactions in this post’s comments.

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