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27: Identify actions that target leverage points

To design effective strategies for change, you first need to identify leverage points for systemic change and then tailor actions that specifically target these points so as to change the system dynamics around them. This work card describes how to identify where to intervene in a system and how to design actions that will move the system towards your goal.

In a workshop with coalition members, key stakeholder representatives, already identified changemakers and relevant technical specialists, draw particularly on the conceptual models developed in Phase 3, to identify leverage points for systemic change and identify actions that target those points. Record insights and assumptions as you work through the process.

Suggested approach: workshop with coalition members, stakeholder representatives, change makers and technical specialists.

Time required: 2-4 hrs depending on how many dilemmas are being addressed.

Facilitation skill level: High – requires systems thinking expertise

Resources: recording material to capture key points and assumptions

Identifying where to intervene

The first task here is to identify where to intervene in the system. Leverage points are places in the system where a small intervention can have a large impact on the system’s behavior (figure 27.1). Outputs from Phase 3 such as influence diagrams, causal loop diagrams, behavior over time graphs, and descriptions of system dynamics, thresholds, traps, and cross-scale interactions etc. offer the clues to identifying leverage points.

Turning the lever. A leverage point is a place in the system dynamics whereby a small intervention gets a catalytic effect. To design effective strategies for change, you first need to identify where the levers are and then tailor actions that specifically target these points. Photo: iStock.

First consult your system models and look at key nodes and links in the system that have lots of interaction with other part of the system. Distill the model down so that it only includes the most critical components and dynamics. Look at key system feedbacks that influence how the system behaves as well as controlling or slow changing variables. Is the system locked-in by reinforcing feedbacks? For example, a coastal fishery that is experiencing steep declines in fish populations might zero in on high fishing pressure and the lack of off-limit areas that provide refuge to fish, leading some communities to consider establishing no-take areas. Alternatively, to address these dynamics, some communities might seek to diversify their livelihood options by re-envisioning their community as one supported by both fisheries and tourism.

Figure 27.1. Interventions in the system should target leverage points (green), which are key relationships in a social-ecological system, where by a smaller change can have substantial impact due to the change in system dynamics. Illustration: E.Wikander/Azote

Different kinds of leverage points

It is important to realize that not all leverage points are equal. Figure 27.2 shows how ease of implementation, the potential for system change, and the speed of system change varies along a gradient of different types of leverage points, which can be conceptualized as ranging from flows, to feedbacks, to contexts to world views. For example, in an intensive agricultural system, lowering the levels of chemical pesticides applied is essentially changing a flow, whereas a more profound change in land management that would eliminate the need for pesticides would reflect a change in system feedbacks. Changing the contexts for this type of intensive agriculture, could for example be done by changing how EU’s Common Agricultural Policy works, and changing world views could reflect a more far-reaching change of public opinion relating to organic versus non-organic produce. Changing values and world views is considered to be the most powerful type of leverage point, but also the most difficult to influence. When compiling your initial list of actions, think about ways of striking a balance with easier and more challenging levers. See attached activity sheet.

Figure 27.2. Different types of leverage points have different potential for system change, but generally also different ease of implementation and speed of change.

Identifying what to do

Once you have identified where to intervene in the system, the next issue is what to do. First brainstorm around possible actions that target the leverage points and move the system towards your goal. It may also be useful to think about actions that help the system avoid undesirable futures (consult scenarios). You should think of actions broadly. They could include a range of different things, for example changes in 1) technology and management practices, 2) formal institutions, such as laws or regulatory frameworks, 3) economic incentives, such as subsidies or taxes, 4) networks and connections, e.g. diffusion of new technology or information access, or 5) awareness levels, education, behavior, values, and norms.

Keep in mind you are trying to target specific points in the system. Therefore, generic actions such as ‘working with local municipal staff’ or ‘building capacity’ are not sufficiently detailed. At this stage, the more detailed you can be, the better. See the attached case from the Snowy River wetland system in Australia, where they designed actions that specifically targeted tipping points.

Document evidence and assumptions as you compile your list of actions

Upon compiling your initial list of actions that target the leverage points, ask yourself why you think these will work? It is important to document the evidence and assumptions regarding how these actions might change the system. This information will form the basis for the learning-by-doing approach to implementation that is developed in Phase 5. If you cannot clearly explain why you think your actions will work, you may not have a clear enough understanding of how the system works. In that case, you should revisit previous steps to gain this understanding before proceeding. The attached discussion guide helps you structure the work on actions that target leverage points in the system.

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28: Analyzing agency and opportunity context

Now that you know where in the system to intervene and what needs to be done, it is time to consider issues related to who needs to be involved and how. This work card zooms in on agency and opportunity context. This refers to who has the ability to implement your actions under current conditions, considering the overall social and institutional context, in which the system and its actors are embedded.

In a workshop with coalition members, identified change makers, and relevant technical specialists, focus in on the Agency and Opportunity context that will be required to implement the strategic actions you have identified. Make use of the outputs from work cards 13-17, concerning system structure and function, and work cards 20-24, concerning cycles of change, option space, future trends, and different plausible scenarios.

Suggested approach: workshop with coalition members, stakeholder representatives, identified change makers and relevant technical specialists

Time required: 2hrs

Facilitation skill level: High

Resources: Outputs from Work cards 13-18, 22-24, recording material to capture key points and assumptions

Who has agency in your system?

Some of the issues we bring up here have most likely already appeared in your discussion around actions, because issues around what to do and who to involve and how to do things given the general state of affairs are of course closely related. This section will guide you to think more deeply about who has the agency to implement the actions that you have designed and what the overall opportunity context looks like right now for achieving that type of change.

A demonstration for good governance at the World Social Forum, in Kenya, 2007. Having identified possible leverage points, it is important to reflect on the agency required to influence those points, and the overall opportunity context, in terms of existing social norms, governance arrangements etc, for creating the envisaged change. Photo: R. Kautsky/Azote.

Agency describes which individuals or groups have the ability (i.e., influence, knowledge, power, connections, etc.) to implement the actions. For example, if your dilemma concerns the negative effects of intensive, large-scale, mono-cultures of cereal crops, you might design a range of actions to support more small-scale, and organic agriculture. One action could be to provide financial credits to small agricultural enterprises with a clear sustainability profile. This would require the involvement of financial services providers, and you can think about agency here in terms of who would be the banks or other institutions that might be interested in partnering with you around this action. Another action might be to influence consumer behavior towards buying more organic produce. In that case you might think about agency in terms of government actors concerned with health and environmental protection, who are able to launch large-scale campaigns for shifting public opinion.

Analyzing agency requires a good understanding of human capacity, power issues, social structures, and existing social networks. There might be people in your system particularly skilled at enabling change, so-called changemakers. It is important to identify these change makers and reflect on how they are positioned in relation to the formal decision making structures that are relevant to the system dilemmas. Are they part of the establishment, or operating more in the margins of the system, working to do things differently? It is also important to reflect on your sphere of influence in the coalition. To what extent are coalition members connected to existing changemakers across sectors and scales? How could these actors be involved in the process (if they are not already) to enable the actions to be implemented?

What is the opportunity context?

In addition to understanding agency you also need to know something about the overall opportunity context. This refers to the larger social, political, and institutional setting in which the system and actors are embedded. The opportunity context includes existing formal institutions, such as laws, policies and organizational structures, as well as social norms, values and cultural practices, that depending on the situation, can facilitate specific actions or hinder them. Thus, the opportunity context might be more or less conducive to the type of change you want to create. Continuing with the simplified example above, as long as environmental regulations allow for the intensive use of fertilizer and pesticides, and people who can afford organic produce choose not to buy it, it will be more difficult to increase small-scale organic agriculture.

How agency and opportunity interact

Opportunity context changes over time, in response to multiple factors including individual agency. Therefore, the prospects for successfully implementing your actions will also change over time. For example, trying to introduce an innovative approach when the system is stable and institutionally rigid is unlikely to succeed. At another point in time, when the system is more flexible, for instance during a period of political or social change, there is a greater opportunity to introduce new and innovative approaches. Understanding how existing institutional structures may hamper change is important to prepare for the implementation of your actions. Equally important, however, is understanding how changemakers can use their skills to modify existing institutional structures, e.g. by addressing deep leverage points such as values, to make the system more open to the type of change they want to see (figure 28.1).The attached case from the Great Bear rainforest in Canada illustrates how the opportunity context may change over time, and what that means for changemakers trying to influence the system’s development.

Figure 28.1 Changemakers are situated in a wider social and institutional context that is more or less conducive to change. Critically assessing how agency and opportunities interact helps to identify strategic actions and increase impact. Illustration: E.Wikander/Azote

Click here to learn more about searching for opportunity with Per Olsson, Researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre

Analyzing agency and opportunity context in relation to your list of actions

Analyzing agency and opportunity context is not an exact science. Looking at the list of actions that you have have identified, draw on the work that you did in Phase 2, work cards 13-17 relating to key actors, social networks, decision making structures, and the institutional set-up of your system, and the work you did in Phase 3, work cards 20-24 on cycles of change, option space and future scenarios, to reflect on agency and opportunity context. It could be useful to ‘map’ your observations about agency onto the systems diagram, and your thinking about the opportunity context to an adaptive cycle diagram. Doing so may reveal some new insights about the viability of your actions. The attached discussion guide will also help structure your thinking.

If this exercise leads you to believe that change through a specific action is not very likely at this time, you will have to think about how the opportunity context can be modified to increase its potential in the future. For example, is there a way to nurture promising biosphere-based innovations at a small-scale until there is a better opportunity to implement them at wider scales? Alternatively, is there a way to support networks of changemakers and future leaders that advocate for this type of action? Are there marginalized groups that need to be empowered before this type of change is likely? This could include for example training and capacity building or creating a new governance structure that increases local participation in decision making. Or could you work on deep leverage points such as values, that over time would increase the chances for success of your actions? Obviously, this is a far more challenging approach, but it may be the best choice to create change given the current context. This will lead you to develop a new set of actions. Creating change will always be an interplay between leverage points, agency and opportunity and will involve multiple actions at different scales, that need to be strategically coordinated.

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29: Filtering your actions: feasibility & effectiveness

Filtering your actions through a set of relevant criteria will refine your list of potential system interventions so that it includes only those that are both socially, economically, and environmentally sound and have the potential to move your system towards your goal. This work card suggests a set of filtering questions for feasibility and effectiveness.

In a workshop with coalition members, key stakeholder representatives, change makers, and relevant technical specialists, work through the list of possible candidate actions and interventions to assess their feasibility and effectiveness. If there are a large number of actions, have smaller parallel groups working on actions relevant to their interests and expertise. Have each small group report back and allow time for discussion and revision.

Suggested approach: workshop with coalition members, stakeholder representatives, change makers, and relevant technical specialists

Time required: 2hrs

Facilitation skill level: medium

Resources: outputs from work card 28, recording material to capture key points and assumptions

Feasibility

By now you have a list of actions that target leverage points, and that are designed in a way that considers agency and opportunity context. Before moving further it is important to reflect on the feasibility and effectiveness of your actions.

Farmer sifting grain after harvest, Spain. Filtering your actions through a set of criteria that considers feasibility and effectiveness will help you refine your list of interventions. Photo: iStock.

Feasibility reflects a set of important social, cultural, emotional, religious, technical, economical, and environmental issues and potential barriers to a specific action, which might seem evident but are often not taken seriously enough.

One well-known example is the distribution of solar panel cookers in poor rural areas in the South, which often have not been used simply because it is far too hot to cook outside. Another is the many dam projects that have failed once the funder has left, since not enough resources have been invested in capacity building for continued dam maintenance and supporting of governance arrangements around the dam. A third example is the assumption that moving a highly productive breed of livestock from one region to another would be a successful strategy, only to realize that the livestock were not adapted to the new climate and the environmental conditions, and consequently had a very low resistance to some local disease.

Effectiveness

Effectiveness reflects how powerful a particular action will be in creating the desired change. Silver bullet approaches are unlikely to be successful for creating change in complex systems. Instead, dealing with the dilemmas you face will most likely require a combination of different actions that target different types of leverage points at different scales. These actions need to be implemented in a coordinated way so that they work to support each other.

For example, shifting to ecosystem-based management of the Great Barrier Reef involved a number of actions targeting different levels of governance in a coordinated manner. From raising local community support through a consultation campaign, to establishing the largest no-take zone in the world, to backing policy with good science and transitioning to more flexible and adaptive ways of managing the reef. Another example is rainwater harvesting in northern Tanzania, which in order to yield the expected benefits for local farmers often has to be combined with improved capacity for storing surplus yield in households, and with better market connections, so that the surplus can be stored and sold later at external markets, when crop prices at local markets drop due to over production.

Filtering your actions for feasibility and effectiveness

Filtering your actions to make sure they are socially, technically, environmentally and economically feasible, and to make sure that they will be effective in creating the desired change, will help you avoid wasting resources on things that will not work anyway. The attached discussion guide will help you think through important aspects related to the feasibility and effectiveness of your actions.

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30: Considering unintended consequences, uncertainty, and option space

Once you have identified where to intervene in a system, what to do and how to do it, and filtered your actions for feasibility and effectiveness, the last step in vetting your actions is to consider any unintended consequences they may have, how they would fair in an uncertain future, and how they would influence the system’s option space. This work card describes how to deal with these important issues, which all are essential features of resilience thinking.

In a workshop with coalition members, stakeholder representatives, change makers and relevant technical specialists, start by referring back to the principles for good Wayfinder practice developed in Work cards 2. Then, drawing on work cards 15, 18, 19, 22-24, and 27-29, consider how proposed actions potentially might potentially impact on the system in undesirable ways. Revise actions. 

Suggested approach: workshop with coalition members, key stakeholder representatives, change makers and relevant technical specialists

Time required: 2 hrs

Facilitation skill level: High

Resources: Outputs from Work cards 2, 15, 18, 19, 22-24, 27-29, recording material to capture key points and assumptions

Trying to foresee unintended consequences

This work card is central to the Wayfinder process. Dealing with unintended consequences, uncertainty and option space are issues at the core of resilience thinking. Looking at your actions through this lens is often considered costly and generally perceived as being of lower priority than addressing the immediate dilemmas. However, deeply engaging with these issues is the only way to navigate towards a more sustainable, safe and just future in the Anthropocene.

All interventions will lead to both intended and unintended changes in the focal system, and potentially beyond. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to consider what unintended consequences the actions that you have designed might have. It is critical to make sure that actions you will implement as a result of the Wayfinder process do not cause unintended harm, particularly to the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable people in the system or beyond. You also must make sure that your solutions do not only move the problem elsewhere or transfer the burden to other people.

Rusty ship in the former Aral Sea harbor of Moynaq, Uzbekistan. One the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea has now dried up almost entirely, as a consequence of large-scale irrigation diverting the inflow of water, having disastrous social and ecological outcomes. The last step in vetting your actions is to carefully consider potential unintended consequences, uncertainty, and option space, and revise your actions accordingly.

Dealing with uncertainty

A second important issue to consider is robustness against an uncertain future. You may have designed a set of actions with a particular future in mind, hoping that future will materialize. However, in the Anthropocene change is the new normal, and even if you have spent time scanning the horizon for emerging drivers and trends and developing plausible scenarios that consider some of the change dynamics at play, there are so many unknown factors. Therefore, it is essential that your actions are designed so that they are robust across a range of possible futures, in the sense that they will still function and contribute towards a more sustainable development trajectory. Otherwise there is a large risk that the work you do here is done in vain.

Managing option space

A third key issue that needs to be considered here, are the effects on option space. Refer back to your option space analysis in phase 3 and think about the key dimensions and the most significant trends. In order to avoid new lock-ins and make sure you maintain as much adaptive and transformative capacity over time as possible, it is crucial that the actions you have identified do not further undermine key dimensions of the option space. Neglecting this aspect means that you run a substantial risk of solving one problem now only to be faced with a new and much worse problem further down the line.

Revising and refining your actions

By now you have a list of actions, which considers leverage points, agency, opportunity, feasibility and effectiveness. The last revision of this list, before you are ready to move into strategy and implementation, should consider unintended consequences, uncertainty and option space.

Revisit work card 2, about principles for good Wayfinder practice, and use outputs from work cards 2, 15, 18, 19, 22, 24, and 27-29 to look for unintended consequences that might arise from the actions. Look particularly for changes in feedbacks, and second or third level connections that could be influenced. If these risks for unintended consequences cannot be lowered or managed, and if there is nothing you can do about robustness and option space, you should consider not proceeding with the action. Having said that, change will not happen if the actions that you design do not challenge some of the entrenched patterns. Therefore, there will always be a level of risk associated with what you do. However, it is important to work with your coalition to determine the level of acceptable risk and to ensure accountability for what comes out of the Wayfinder process. Use the attached discussion guide to try to foresee unintended consequences, increase the robustness of your actions to an uncertain future and manage option space in your system.

Having done that you should be able to come up with a refined list of actions that target leverage points for systemic change, that consider agency and opportunity context, that are feasible and effective, and that handle unintended consequences, uncertainty and option space in a satisfying way. If that is the case, you are ready to move on to Module C, where the individual actions are bundled into strategies and packaged into an Action Plan. Use the attached activity sheet on design criteria to check that you are good to go. If you feel that you have not dealt with all the design criteria adequately, we strongly recommend that you revisit earlier parts of Phase 4, to come up with alternative actions, or to design your actions in a different way.

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