Eclectic Curiosity

Leverage Points and Complex Systems

Posted on October 23rd, 2005, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

So one day I was sitting in a meeting about the new global trade regime, NAFTA and GATT and the World Trade Organization. The more I listened, the more I began to simmer inside. “This is a HUGE NEW SYSTEM people are inventing!” I said to myself. “They haven’t the slightest idea how it will behave,” myself said back to me. “It’s cranking the system in the wrong direction—growth, growth at any price!! And the control measures these nice folks are talking about—small parameter adjustments, weak negative feedback loops—are PUNY!”

Suddenly, without quite knowing what was happening, I got up, marched to the flip chart, tossed over a clean page, and wrote: ” Places to Intervene in a System ,” followed by nine items:

9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).
8. Material stocks and flows.
7. Regulating negative feedback loops.
6. Driving positive feedback loops.
5. Information flows.
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints).
3. The power of self-organization.
2. The goals of the system.
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

Everyone in the meeting blinked in surprise, including me. “That’s brilliant!” someone breathed. “Huh?” said someone else.

I realized that I had a lot of explaining to do.

This is the background inspiration for Donella Meadows‘s 12 Leverage points to Intervene in a System. Meadows, now deceased, was a pioneering environmental scientist, writer, and teacher for 29 years at Dartmouth College. She was tremendously influential in the field of systems thinking and analysis. The full article from which the above was quoted is a must-read, in my opinion. It’s brilliantly written, providing numerous and varied examples to support the complicatingly simple idea that all things interact and some things effect interations more than others.

(Thanks for the link, Julien!)

Also on the topic of complex systems being, uh, complex systems, check out VisualComplexity. VC is loaded with maps and illustrations of various networks and is intended as “a unified resource space for anyone interested in the visualization of complex networks. The project’s main goal is to leverage a critical understanding of different visualization methods, across a series of disciplines, as diverse as Biology, Social Networks or the World Wide Web.”

(via Russell Davies)

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