Despite substantial focus on sustainability issues in both science and politics, humanity remains on largely unsustainable development trajectories. Partly, this is due to the failure of sustainability science to engage with the root causes of unsustainability. Drawing on ideas by Donella Meadows, we argue that many sustainability interventions target highly tangible, but essentially weak, leverage points (i.e. using interventions that are easy, but have limited potential for transformational change). Thus, there is an urgent need to focus on less obvious but potentially far more powerful areas of intervention. We propose a research agenda inspired by systems thinking that focuses on transformational ‘sustainability interventions’, centred on three realms of leverage: reconnecting people to nature, restructuring institutions and rethinking how knowledge is created and used in pursuit of sustainability. The notion of leverage points has the potential to act as a boundary object for genuinely transformational sustainability science.
Relevance for Complex Systems Knowledge
The article outlines an interpretation of key steps to refine and operationalize Meadows’ vision of 12 types of leverage points into a concrete research agenda. These steps include (1) synthesis and integration of existing research on leverage points and theirtransformational role related to sustainability issues; (2) identifying concrete leverage points for sustainability transformation and (3) studying the interactions between shallow and deep leverage points.
An important contribution is the division of the types of leverage points into two categories, deep and shallow. The shallow refer to parameters related to material stocks and flows, and to feedback mechanisms. These shallow parameters are what so far has got the most attention in the sustainability debate. The deeper leverage points refer to immaterial issues, such s information flows, rules, power structures, goals and paradigms. Questions related to deeper leverage points may induce more fundamental transformations. The article shows three areas to act upon for deeper leverage points:
Re-structure: Change, stability and learning in institutions. Institutions
guide and constrain action, institutional change represents a crucial realm of leverage for sustainability transformations. Notably, institutions can embody fundamental societal paradigms. Because institutions tend to be self-reinforcing and resistant to change, harnessing institutional change for sustainability transformations can be difficult.
Four potential means to leverage structural change in institutions are identified: 1) crisis management to open for transformational learning and adaptation, 2) purposefully destabilize the organization from a thorough understanding of the institutions, 3) use lessons learned from systematic analysis of institutional failures in other contexts, 4) manage institutional decline to avoid losing knowledge, networks and actor capacity.
Re-connect: Targeting interactions between people and nature
How people perceive, value and interact with the natural
world fundamentally shapes the goals and paradigms
underpinning many systems of interest. This implies a need for;
research on how disconnection
relates to unsustainability outcomes, or how reconnecting people with nature can lead to system transformation;
research to explore the relative transformational
potential of different types of human–nature connections
(e.g. material, experiential, psychological, philosophical)
research on how different types of human–nature
connections interact—and can be influenced.
Re-think: How knowledge is produced and used
Re-thinking knowledge for sustainability transformations requires an
understanding of how knowledge flows through systems of interest, and how we identify the goals and expectations of sustainable transformations (intent) or select the methods and means that help us to get there (design). Three key requirements of new forms of knowledge production for fostering sustainability transformations:
a problem- and solution-oriented research approach;
mutual learning processes between science and society, and thus a re-thinking of the role of science in society
the explicit inclusion of values, norms and context characteristics into the
research process to produce ‘‘socially robust’’ knowledge.
Deeper system characteristics shape and constrain the types of interventions available at
shallower leverage points. The paradigms, mind sets and values that determine intent are vital in shaping design. Design, in turn, determines the characteristics and strength
of the feedbacks provided. Together, intent, design and feedbacks shape the material interventions that can be used to adjust behaviour. However, it is possible that parameter
adjustments or changes in feedbacks (for example, increased understanding of the impacts of climate change) may challenge or even shift the mind sets of actors—therefore
ultimately altering the emergent intent of a given system of interest. An understanding of such potential interactions between deep and shallow leverage points represents a crucial gap in our current understanding of sustainability issues.
More research is needed to understand: (i) how and to what extent deeper system characteristics (design and intent) shape and constrain shallower characteristics (feedbacks
and parameters); (ii) the effectiveness of acting on a single leverage point (e.g. intent) compared to multiple leverage points in stimulating transformational system change; (iii)
the role of potential ‘cross realm levers’ (e.g. interventions that simultaneously address institutional reform, human– nature interactions and knowledge production) and (iv) the
relation between theoretically informed understandings oftransformational changes and the practical action undertaken to effect such changes.