“[L]everage points” […] are places within a complex system […] where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.’ (Meadows, 1999:1)
Simple systemic flows connected together create complex systems. Flows consist of stocks moving according to set parameters, constants, and numbers. According to Donella Meadows, a system has a stock-and-flow structure. Its stock represents its state, and its flow represents the inflow and outflow that reflect changes in the system’s stock volume. This flow has temporality and depends on the parameters existing in the system. Parameters indicate the rate at which flows increase (inflow) and decrease (outflow) the system’s stock volume. A system may be stable, slow or rapid (imbalanced). Because this stock-and-flow structure entails that the stock volume and stability depends on the rate of the flows (in and out), a system’s stability requires the leveraging of a stock’s buffer capacity so that, if slow, the buffer decreases, and if rapid, the buffer increases. Decreasing or increasing the size of buffer capacity in a system stabilizes and leverages its stock.
The leverage point is in proper design in the first place. After the structure is built, the leverage is in understanding its limitations […] and refraining from fluctuations or expansions that strain its capacity.” (Meadows, 1999:8)
Oscillations in a system result in delays in feedback loops. Short or long delays account for imbalances in a system, describe the rate of changes in the state of the system, and determine the efficiency of its feedback loops. Meadows calls short feedback loops “overreaction” –oscillations that are too short, rapid, and amplified. When speed of changes and size of delays don’t coincide, one sees imbalances in the system.
DRIVING POSITIVE FEEDBACK LOOPS
Long feedback loops, those that create slowness in the system’s responses to action, cause chaos, collapse, and irreversible damage. However, most important to a system’s stability is its growth rate. Changing delays in a system can have drastic implications on the stability of the system –its inflow and outflow dilemma. Complex systems contain negative feedback loops that are responsible for regulating these changes (oscillations).
A delay in a feedback process is critical relative to rates of change in the system state that the feedback loop is trying to control. […] The strength of a negative feedback loop is important relative to the impact it is designed to correct.” (Meadows, 1999:8-10)
Chaos takes place when strong positive loops take over weak negative loops resulting in an unstable system with unpredictable growing rates –a behavior which may cause the system to destroy itself. “Control must involve slowing down the positive feedbacks.” (Meadows, 1999:12) Control, then, involves delaying the positive loops to allow the negative feedback the necessary interval to react and regulate the system.
On the one hand, positive feedback loops in a system are self-reinforcing. With high positive feedback, a system may destroy itself by self-multiplying and causing itself to collapse. On the other hand, negative feedback loops are leverage points in a system where intervention can be fruitful. Adjusting the buffer capacity (delays) and thereby recalibrating stock flows (“emergency response mechanisms”) help the system sustain itself by self-correcting in response to changes and oscillations in feedback loops. Because the strength of impacts and feedback must coincide, when one strengthens a system’s negative feedback, one raises its self-correcting abilities.
Negative feedback loops become regulating sources for reducing and slowing the growth of positive loops by giving it time and delays to recalibrate and stabilize itself.
In some cases there may be missing feedback in a system which causes it to malfunction. These instances indicate leverage point opportunities to create a “new loop” in a system (Meadows, 1999:13). Making information salient creates awareness and a bifurcation in one’s relationship to the environment, objects, and/or one’s beliefs, in turn redirecting one’s behavior towards and perception of a system. Turning no feedback into persuasive feedback generates a new systemic loop. However, persuasiveness occurs when information is configured in a meaningful and compelling way (i.e. comparative juxtaposition of selected data reveals another layer of understanding –new loop). New loops generate mass behavioral shifts as they raise the notion of accountability for individual actions and decisions –a paradigm shifter.
[R]ules for self-organization […] govern how, where, and what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions.” (Meadows, 1999:15)
Self-organizing structures allow a system to change, evolve, and sustain itself as external actors and internal entities affect and impact its systemic structure overtime; thus, developing new response mechanism and enacting new rules and behaviors. Self-organizing rules dictate the emergence of complex adaptive structures and behavioral patterns in a system. These rules help the system deal with unpredictable behavior of external and internal actors, leaving the system open to changing conditions, and variable and open-ended in itself to evolve, adapt, and mutate over time.
Donella Meadows suggests that transcending paradigms lies in one’s ability and willingness to perceive multiple mindsets where no paradigm is true or right. With this enlightened view, flexible and open-ended paradigms evolve in relation to a system’s variable purpose, goal, or belief.
Source: Meadows, Donella H. “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” Sustainability Institute, December, 1999.