Places to Intervene

September 19, 2012

How do we make changes that impact systems? (the communications system, poverty, unemployment, the economic system, ecosystems, etc.) What sorts of different changes are possible, and how powerful is each type?

A classic systems thinking article, “Places to Intervene in a System” by Donella Meadows offers an answer to these questions:

**Google the title and you’ll find multiple versions of the article online. She writes:

…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.


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.

Meadows goes on to describe each of the nine points. #9 (numbers) is generally the least effective intervention she says, but one of the most common, whereas #1 (paradigm) is difficult but powerful.

She also makes an interesting assertion that people (countries, companies, organizations) often recognize the powerful pressure point in the system they’re involved in, but typically push this point in the wrong direction:

The classic example of that backward intuition was [Jay] Forrester’s [of MIT’s] first world model. Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems—poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment—are related and how they might be solved, Forrester came out with a clear leverage point: Growth. Both population and economic growth.

Growth has costs—among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction—the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth!

The world’s leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all problems, but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction [more growth].

If this is the case, that systems are counter-intuitive, and that we are often pushing them in the wrong direction, what might this indicate about technology?

Put simplistically, if we commonly believe that “technology is the answer to all our problems” (solving global poverty, keeping the environment clean, bringing empowerment, etc.), perhaps we might consider what problems technology is causing or exacerbating.

Image from a version of the “Places to Intervene” paper published by Innovation Labs



I’ve tried — quite roughly — applying the Places to Intervene framework to the communications system to get a sense of how it might work as a tool.  After working this through it seems that it might be helpful to first answer some questions to better determine:

(a) What system we’re talking about. In this case, what we mean by the communications system and is it really a “system”? When we talk about the “communications system” – are we just referring to physical technology that supports it, or also the act of communication itself, language, etc.? What elements of the communications landscape are variable and to what degree? How does / can the communications system change over time?

(b) What aspect of the system we’d like to look at. For example, how does the communications system relate to people’s well being? To the planet’s well being? Both? E.g. some aspects of the communications system may be beneficial for people and not the environment, and the other way around. Or, the communications system configured as it is now may benefit some people more than others.


I haven’t gotten through answering the above points in terms of this basic analysis below, but instead tried to put down some notes of the kinds of things related to the communications system that could fit in each of the nine buckets:

9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards) – ex: taxes on information and communications technologies, subsidies for mobile phones or home broadband, digital readiness standards.


The least effective place to intervene is by arbitrarily changing various parameters. These are things we can measure, but which don’t really represent an important state of the system. Changing the temperature inside the passenger compartment of a car may be easy, but it won’t help reduce the temperature of an overheating engine. We also try often to make changes to numbers without understanding how the system that creates them works. Therefore, a manager might demand that next year’s sales figures exceed $1,000,000. Simply writing a new number down won’t make it happen.

8. Material stocks and flows – We don’t often think about the materiality of technology (which is a problem), but when one does it’s clear that information and communications technologies take energy and resources to produce, including non-renewable ones. They also take energy to use. And, they become (often toxic) waste when they’re deemed no longer useful, which may be after just a few years or even a few months. Since we live on a planet with finite resources that cannot withstand limitless pollution this sets constraints on technology manufacture and use. It’s pretty unlikely that we can change these aspects of physical reality, so we need to work smartly within them.

7. Regulating negative feedback loops (e.g. setting a thermostat) – Let’s say for example’s sake that we have a law or guiding regulatory mandate that says once penetration of a technology reaches a certain level of penetration and is necessary for daily life, someone [government, corporations, communities] is responsible for making sure that the folks who don’t have it have the opportunity for access, e.g. universal service. How the presence or absence of this law impact the behavior of various actors within the system?

6. Driving positive feedback loops – Ex: getting some people to adopt a technology or behavior that then influence others to do so to the extent that it becomes socially or professionally difficult not to. Think Facebook or Microsoft Word.

5. Information flows – Ex: research that gives us a clearer picture of what’s going on answering questions like, how many people have/don’t have information and communications technology access/skills and why? Quantitative research like surveys and statistics help us get a better sense of “what?” and “how much?” while qualitative research like interviews and user studies help us understand “why?” and “how?”

Information Flows

Often we don’t have the information we need in order to know what to change in a system. It’s like trying to fill a bathtub to the right level without either being able to look at the bath or to use your hand to gauge the amount of water that’s already in it. Sometimes just showing people information about the state of a stock (how much cash they have in the bank), or the rate of a flow (how fast their cash is entering the bank through income or leaving the bank through expenses) is enough to get them to make the necessary changes to improve the system they’re working with (cut down on eating out or find a little higher paying job).

4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints) – Ex: The fact that the U.S. federal government required telecom providers to open their infrastructure to other players who wanted to offer dial-up internet led to a competitive market place with many options for consumers. This hasn’t been the case with broadband. The result has been that just a handful, only one, or sometimes no broadband providers serve most markets. This has meant fewer options for service and higher prices for many.

3. The power of self-organization – Ex: The shift from the typewriter to the computer has led to all kinds of new products, services, behaviors, health issues. One could see this, and other similar shifts (analog to digital photography, paper books to ebooks, etc.), as a self-organizing revolution within the communications system.

2. The goals of the system – Some things we might consider to be goals or sub-goals of the current communications system may be: to sell more digital devices and services; to create more high-tech jobs and workers skilled to fill them; to make government and business more efficient via technology; to get everyone online and digitally savvy; to do this without burdening corporations or taxpayers. If one or more of these underlying goals were changed what impact would that have, on whom?

1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise – This might include beliefs like: “Technology will make us happier, richer, more efficient, and so on.” (Despite studies that show loneliness and anxiety in relation to ICTs). Or that “More technology will solve problems like poverty, both nationally and internationally.” (As opposed to creating problems of its own, or making existing inequalities worse). Or, that “More technology will lead to more jobs.” (As opposed to fewer, e.g. all the jobs now ‘done by computers’ that humans used to do.) Or, that “Technology’s impact is always equally positive for everyone.” (Not considering the ways that it can be used to effectively further disadvantage the already disadvantaged).

The Mindset or Paradigm

The highest place to intervene—the most effective and the most difficult—is how we think about the systems we are trying to change. Egyptians built pyramids because they believed in an afterlife. We build skyscrapers because we believe that downtown space is extremely valuable. We engage in capitalism because we agree with Adam Smith that the selfish actions of individual players in markets wonderfully accumulates to the common good.


And, finally, here is some recommended further reading on systems, from Dharma:

1. Streetlights and Shadows:Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making by Gary Klein, 2009, MIT Press (print book or ebook).

2. The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems by Fritjof Capra, 1997, Anchor (see here).

3. Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment by Thomas H. Davenport, 1997, Oxford University Press (see here).

This First Monday article also looks interesting: Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart by Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O’Day, 1999 (see here).

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Policy, Systems