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Deep Leverage points for dummies

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

Leverage points can intervene in systems to create transformations for sustainability. Read more to find out about them!

A system is an entity with an interconnected set of elements organized to achieve something. A system has elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose. For example, a computer is a system, with a multitude of hardware and software parts connected to each other to perform a function - computing. A computer is also an element in an interconnected system of the internet, where different elements or computers are connected in a system to exchange information. Many interconnections in a system work with the flow of information. Information flows often plays an important role in determining how systems behave. These flows can be physical such as an electronic signal between semiconductors or the flow of water into a tree trunk, and some flows are intangible such as the government seeking data to improve its policies. Lastly, a system’s foundation is stocked; they are elements of the system that can be felt, measured, or seen at any time like the storage of a hard drive. Stocks are connected within the system with inflows (adding to the stock) and outflows (subtracting from the stock).

The purpose of the system is one of the most crucial determinants of a system’s behavior. If you take to replace all the parts of the computer and set it up again, it is still a computer because it performs its function - computing. In the context of climate change, it is a complex social, economic, political, and environmental system that has many sub-systems nested within it. Shifts in the system at certain points can produce big changes in everything. The places of these interventions are called leverage points.

There are 12 types of leverage points proposed by Donella Meadows, the scientist who conceptualized systems thinking. They have been arranged in order of impact on the system. Note that this classification is not linear but in increasing order of impact and that each leverage point has importance in systems change.

Deep Leverage points by Corina Angheloiu

12. Constants, parameters, and numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, and standards).

These leverage points are important to regulate society through laws and regulations. The information that feeds such laws and regulations can be obtained through technology such as IoT for climate data, scientific research, government data, and more. However, this only regulates systems in a superficial manner. In the case of air pollution, lower air pollution levels would be a changing parameter. This does not grant us clean air, only cleaner air.

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

Imagine a forest that grows using nutrients found in nature. The growth of the forest equals the rate at which trees are logged in the forest. You can then consider the forest as a stabilizing stock or a buffer, which stays constant relative to the inflow and outflow. When you increase the size of the forest (buffer), you only get more forest relative to the rate of regeneration and extraction. This does not have big climate implications as we continue to extract from the forest faster than it can restore itself.

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

Consider the physical structure of rail transport. Improving the structure of a railway system has enormous benefits to society as it can encourage more people to use public and land transport as opposed to cars and airplanes. However, it is a very arduous and expensive task to physically alter the structure of a system and does not guarantee a transformation in how people travel.

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

A delay in a system is the result of an information delay or a response delay. Let’s say the government receives notice of a cyclone coming to the coast with a significant time delay; this delays their response to safeguard citizens against cyclones. And if the government has the information in a timely manner, it may still delay its response due to organizational inefficiency or lack of political will. While changing the rate of delays can be a deep leverage point, it is very hard to change this.

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

A negative feedback loop is a phenomenon that regulates a system to its original state. If we think about economic markets as stabilizing systems due to market signals and price fluctuations, it is a negative feedback loop. But this loop is contingent upon the price being kept unambiguous, timely, and truthful. The feedback power of these market signals is weakened by powerful actors like corporations twisting information in their favor. The real leverage point here would then be to prevent them from doing so.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

Positive feedback loops are self-reinforcing - the increase in one parameter increases the other, and vice versa. Some of these loops may have a negative impact and throw the system into chaos, such as the spread of diseases like COVID-19. But some of these may have a positive compounding effect, like in the case of sustainable farming where getting rid of industrial techniques (pesticides, harvesters, inorganic fertilizers) can actually lead to higher availability of natural resources, soil health, and better climate regulation. This leverage point is a gamble but can create some opportunities for positive growth.

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

When there is a better flow of information, there is also a better response to that flow, and an intervention to reduce delay in systems is possible. This is considered a deep leverage point -the case of open government data for air quality monitoring in India illustrates this. The National Air Quality Index dashboard by the Central Pollution Control Board has enabled citizens to see data on air quality in real-time and helped them to hold polluters accountable.

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

The rules that govern a society establish a power dynamic, and the power to change these rules is real power. When too much power lies in the hand of a government or any corporation, it creates a system malfunction. For example, the lack of public participation and deliberate marginalization of public inputs in policymaking in India is a sign of system malfunction. This was demonstrated in the draft EIA rules proposed in 2020.

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

Systems have the evolutionary capacity, also known as a self-organizing system structure. From technological advances to social revolutions, there are many instances of social, political, economic, and environmental systems evolving. Evolution is only possible as a result of the diversity of ideas, cultures, and approaches which are eventually ‘selected for ‘by the system and replace older versions. Diversity is of prime importance in any system.

3. The goals of the system.

The goal of the system is one of the deepest leverage points. The purpose of the system is a key characteristic - changing this alters the system significantly. A classic example is the changing of political regimes as a result of elections. You elect the manifesto of the party that you vote for, and the manifesto paves the way for the purpose of the government and its officials.

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

Systems are born from paradigms. Paradigms are shared social agreements about reality and what constitutes reality. This frames the system's goal, such as what should be the goal of sustainability. The Sustainable Development Goals are internationally agreed upon as sustainability goals, but some may argue they place too much emphasis on economic development and too little on environmental protection. These goals are a product of the paradigm that places financial well-being over human rights.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

The deepest leverage point of them all is the power to look beyond paradigms. Equipping oneself and others to recognize the subjective nature of reality, think critically about paradigms, and understand that no paradigm is “true” is the highest form of systems thinking. Getting too attached to a paradigm creates systemic inflexibility. If no paradigm is “right” then you are free to choose the paradigm that suits your purpose.

Being in the tech industry comes with a mindset of techno-fixes. Technology alone cannot lead to transformations for climate-resilient futures. Techies need to recognize that with their work in technology, they can only influence leverage points 7-12. These points are important but not as impactful as leverage points 1-6. To really leverage these systems for a better future, use your power in society to influence social, economic, political, and environmental systems. Your power can be your money, your designation in an organization, your social influence and networks, your role as a citizen, and much more.

Be political. Be critical. Be an active citizen. And above all, be a friend to Earthkind.

A system is more than the sum of its parts. This means that the system may adapt, be dynamic, goal-seeking, or self-preserving, and it may even exhibit evolutionary behavior.


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