Leverage points

Date created: 2022-10-24

A leverage point is “a place within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything”. There are many applications: the single hero, the magic password, the silver bullet etc.

Where are the most effective points for intervention?

I think this is interesting to reflect on in science, both as an enterprise and also more small-scale in my own environment. Which of these can I change, which are outside my control?

  1. The power to transcend paradigms
  2. Mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises (goals, power structure, rules, culture)
  3. Goals of the system
  4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards)

Even though it is a very ineffective leverage point, changing system parameters receives a lot of attention. However, they can have a large impact if the kick off things higher up the list, such as reaching a critical Tipping point. But this is much more rare than we think.

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

The difference between in/out flow in a large bathtub vs a small sink. Why we don’t talk about “lake floods” but rather “river floods”. Big buffers:

  • Stabilize a system
  • Cause the system to be inflexible
  • Can bring high costs (building them or maintaining them)

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

Physical structure is crucial in a system, but rarely a leverage point, because changing it is rarely quick or simple. The leverage point is in proper design in the first place. After the structure is built, the leverage is in understanding its limitations and bottlenecks, using it with maximum efficiency, and refraining from fluctuations or expansions that strain its capacity.

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

For example, in the energy sector there are rapid shifts in demand but slow responses. It takes a while to build new power plants or shut them down.

Delays that are too short cause overreaction, “chasing your tail,” oscillations amplified by the jumpiness of the response. Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained, or exploding oscillations, depending on how much too long. At the extreme they cause chaos. Overlong delays in a system with a threshold, a danger point, a range past which irreversible damage can occur, cause overshoot and collapse.

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

We have negative feedback loops to keep a system within a stable state. Body temperature is regulated through sweating or shivering. They are self-correcting.

One common mistake is removing the negative feedback loops only used in emergencies because they seem costly or unnecessary:

One of the big mistakes we make is to strip away these “emergency” response mechanisms because they aren’t often used and they appear to be costly. In the short term we see no effect from doing this. In the long term, we drastically narrow the range of conditions over which the system can survive. One of the most heartbreaking ways we do this is in encroaching on the habitats of endangered species. Another is in encroaching on our own time for rest, recreation, socialization, and meditation.

Some actors want to weaken the strength of certain feedback loops to gain an advantage, for example on an economic market. That’s why we need laws and rules to keep the feedback loops in place. Another example is how we regulate which politicians are elected by voting them in and out of office, and observing their behavior.

This great system was invented to put self-correcting feedback between the people and their government. The people, informed about what their elected representatives do, respond by voting those representatives in or out of office. The process depends upon the free, full, unbiased flow of information back and forth between electorate and leaders. Billions of dollars are spent to limit and bias and dominate that flow. Give the people who want to distort market price signals the power to pay off government leaders, get the channels of communication to be self-interested corporate partners themselves, and none of the necessary negative feedbacks work well. Both market and democracy erode.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops

Positive feedback loops are self-reinforcing. Compound growth is one example.

  • What happens if the positive feedback loop is unchecked?
  • What can we do to reduce the self-multiplying power?

We often see positive feedback loops play a large role in income inequality. The rich have resources to hire accountants and lean on politicians to avoid tax, they make use of compound growth to amass new money, etc. They can save and send their kids to elite education.

One way to intervene is to slow down the rate of positive feedback, to give other parts of the system time to adapt.

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

Are there places where new feedback loops (positive or negative) can be introduced? Accountability for your own actions: Having industry companies report their pollution levels.

Missing feedback is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure. The tragedy of the commons that is crashing the world’s commercial fisheries occurs because there is no feedback from the state of the fish population to the decision to invest in fishing vessels.

5. Rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints)

The rules of the system define its scope, its boundaries, its degrees of freedom. Thou shalt not kill. Everyone has the right of free speech. Contracts are to be honored. The president serves four-year terms and cannot serve more than two of them. Nine people on a team, you have to touch every base, three strikes and you’re out. If you get caught robbing a bank, you go to jail.

Imagine a system you are in with a different set of rules and incentives. What if academics received tenure depending on whether they were able to solve real-world problems or not? Rather than the amounts of academic papers they published. Keep a list of important problems and test new ideas against them rather than bean counting.

If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules, and to who has power over them.

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

Adaptation, evolution, technological advances, self-organization. This is also powerful due to diversity in systems, so we should strive to have many different cultures and ideas floating around.

Self-organization means changing any aspect of a system lower on this list — adding completely new physical structures, such as brains or wings or computers — adding new negative or positive loops, or new rules. The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience. A system that can evolve can survive almost any change, by changing itself.

3. The goals of the system

Elon Musk buying Twitter means that he can specify entirely new goals for the platform, which will have a massive impact on the company.

I said awhile back that changing the players in the system is a low-level intervention, as long as the players fit into the same old system. The exception to that rule is at the top, where a single player can have the power to change the system’s goal.

Ronald Reagan changed the entire political narrative with his neoliberal reforms.

But 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.

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

Which paradigm are we working under? Does the sun orbit the Earth, or the other way around? If you are able to intervene and change the paradigm, this will completely tranform the systems under that paradigm. A kind of First-principles thinking for systems.

Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them, from shared social agreements about the nature of reality, come system goals and information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows and everything else about systems.

1. The power to transcend paradigms

There is yet one leverage point that is even higher than changing a paradigm. That is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to stay flexible, to realize that NO paradigm is “true,” that every one, including the one that sweetly shapes your own worldview, is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe that is far beyond human comprehension.


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