Donella Meadows' Leverage Points / by Dan

Scott Wilson first pointed me in the direction of Donella Meadows' 'Leverage Points - Places to Intervene in a System' [PDF, 93 kB], and it's been very useful in thinking about the 'Design with Intent' idea at a system level rather than just the myopic preoccupation with armrests on park benches and interface design which it could have become.

One of the main points in my IJSE article Making users more efficient: Design for sustainable behaviour is that Design with Intent, viewed as 'design to change user behaviour', pretty much resolves into manipulation of actual and perceived affordances & constraints, persuasion through information and feedback, or a combination of both - a context-based approach "where affordances, constraints or persuasive elements are selectively enabled or displayed depending on users’ behaviour at the time." (This categorisation also parallels Debra Lilley's and Renee Wever et al's to a large extent - which is a good sign, I think.)

Really, all of this is about designing into systems (products, services, environments, choice architectures): - real affordances which allow, make it easier or more difficult, or prevent certain actions or decisions occurring; or perceived affordances which suggest/give users feedforward on the consequences of decisions or actions - information mechanisms which give feedback on previous or current decisions or actions - the ability to connect one to the other, i.e. a system choosing which affordances or perceived affordances to present, based on information.

Looking at Donella Meadows' work, it seems that the three Design with Intent approaches map reasonably closely to three of her leverage points, or at least subsets of them:

Persuasion through information and feedback:

6. The structure of information flows

There was this subdivision of identical houses, the story goes, except that for some reason the electric meter in some of the houses was installed in the basement and in others it was installed in the front hall, where the residents could see it constantly, going round faster or slower as they used more or less electricity. With no other change, with identical prices, electricity consumption was 30 percent lower in the houses where the meter was in the front hall.

We systems-heads love that story because it’s an example of a high leverage point in the information structure of the system. It’s not a parameter adjustment, not a strengthening or weakening of an existing loop. It’s a new loop, delivering information to a place where it wasn’t going before and therefore causing people to behave differently. ... 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.

Manipulation of actual and perceived affordances & constraints:

5. The rules of the system [or, as originally outlined, 'The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints)']

The rules of the system define its scope, its boundaries, its degrees of freedom... As we try to imagine restructured rules...and what our behavior would be under them, we come to understand the power of rules. They are high leverage points. Power over the rules is real power.

Affordances, constraints or persuasive elements selectively enabled or displayed depending on users’ behaviour at the time:

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

...these rules basically govern how, where, and what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions.

(As an aside, the PDF on the Sustainability Institute's website, linked above, is 'SECURED' in an attempt to prevent people copying text from it, as I've done above. This constraint is an example of Meadows' Leverage point 5, of course. But thanks to the rebalance of information flow (Leverage point 6) afforded by the internet, it took me less than 30 seconds to find something to strip the protection from the PDF and let me copy the text to the clipboard.)