Where and when to intervene?

By Josie Chambers

The uphill struggle for a more sustainable future can seem endless. The leverage points framework seeks to inform where and when to intervene to help gather momentum to truly transform old systems into new systems – rooted in different interwoven intents, designs, processes and outcomes. During my journey home from #leverage2019, I had the chance to reflect on some key insights from a fascinating session on where and when to intervene:

1. System structures and designs facilitate material flows and feedbacks that lead to particular outcomes over others. These processes both emerge from and actively reinforce certain deeply held paradigms.

2. For example, Per Olsson showed how rapid transformations occur both in the name of sustainability (e.g. expansion of linked protectionist conservation paradigm and natural park system) and in the name of development (e.g. expansion of neoliberal economic paradigm of growth and deregulation/privatization efforts).

3. Given these system-reinforcing dynamics, where and when is the most powerful place to intervene to transform systems? Donella Meadow’s original work distinguished between “shallower” (i.e. less powerful) leverage points (e.g. shifting material flows or feedbacks) and “deeper” leverage points (e.g. shifting underlying paradigms or designs).

4. Interventions engage with paradigms in different ways; they can exploit, accommodate or transform them – regardless of whether actors are blind to this occurring or not. For example, an attempt to intervene through the shallow leverage point of adjusting parameters (e.g. paying a farmer to conserve) may overlook how this reinforces the neoliberal paradigm of seeing farmers as simply self-interested “rational” actors.

5. Building capacity for systemic transformation requires understanding how interactions among diverse leverage points can drive overall changes. For example, in the context of addressing gender inequalities and well-being in Ethopia, Aisa Manlosa shows how rules related to the rights of women led to changes in their presence in public life, which helped change men’s attitude towards women. She argues that “changes in deep leverage points can drive overall changes, but changes in shallow leverage points can create sparks for enabling conditions”.


Aisa Manlosa

Aisa Manlosa at #leverage2019: describing interactions between leverage points for gender-transformative change in southwestern Ethiopia (see Manlosa et al 2018)

6. As Lorrae van Kerkhoff argued in the opening day plenary panel discussion, coordinating multiple leverage points requires people to think beyond their narrow bubbles of intentional transformation to identify broader windows of opportunity. This can allow them to build on existing interactions among constructive efforts towards transformation, as well as to position these collective efforts against broader problematic systems.

7. An ongoing challenge is that many interventions rely on relatively shallow leverage points in practice, yet this is often obscured through a discourse of transformation. As Per Olsson argued, if interventions fail to engage major problematic paradigms and transform resource flows and power relations, it is unlikely that those changes will become stabilized over time.

8. Eureta Rosenberg’s work showed how relatively “shallow” leverage points can play a critical role in transforming systems, as long as they also engage deeper leverage points. For example, she seeks to shift the practice and paradigm of measurement from “objective” to “transformative”. Rather than demonizing measurement, she works with organizations in South Africa to practice measurement mindfully by “bringing monitoring practices alive for the people involved in interventions instead of excluding them”. This involves fundamentally changing how monitoring works by rooting how goals are assessed in people’s own criteria and values, shifting the relative power of actors, and enhancing reflection and learning as a way to leverage change.


Eureta Rosenberg

Eureta Rosenberg at #leverage2019: describing how to prioritize learning by measuring mindfully; see her related Evaluation Design Toolkit (2012)

9. Mark Edwards returned our attention to the critical importance of scale. Linking leverage points together necessitates understanding who holds the power and capacity for particular types of transformations. For example, influencing the paradigms of a single individual farmer in a remote village may have limited implications compared to influencing the paradigms of a global organization funding conservation work. In addition, a focus on shifting paradigms can be highly limiting without jointly exploring broader structural pressures and constraints that continue to reinforce those paradigms.

10. Per Olsson highlighted the complex non-linear temporal dimension of transformation. Much focus has been on how interventions may interact to de-stabilize dominant systems; yet, he asks, what happens when “the ball is rolling”? Different capacities are needed to navigate the violent attempts to co-opt transformation processes for selfish motives, just as different capacities are needed to then stabilize new paradigms and structures.


Per Olsson

Per Olsson at #leverage2019: Three identified phases of a social-ecological transformation (see Olsson et al. 2010)

11. Yet, there is an inherent risk in stabilizing new paradigms and structures. It is therefore important to recognize what has actually been transformed, what has not, and the broader implications. As Per Olsson notes, in some cases, a violent transformation can result in one group simply co-opting the same rhetoric and power of another group.

12. A central challenge is therefore to strike a balance between intentionally stabilizing new interlinked paradigms-structures that pursue particular solutions and prevent co-opting of the agenda, while intentionally de-stabilizing these new structures enough through mechanisms that build room for learning and reframing over time.

13. Mark Edwards showed how social, ecological and economic components can be integrated in many different ways; thus, the mere integration of components does not imply “systemic transformation”. Indeed, many sustainability approaches simply subsume environmental and social objectives into economic ones. As Ray Ison argued, being radical may require adopting a new framing of “economy” that recognizes that “economic is just one of the many ways of being social”.

14. Improved transparency is therefore needed over what is meant when something is called “systemic” or “transformative”, so that these paradigms are not co-opted to allow people to simply surf the green wave to legitimize their power and dominant framing. Perhaps the focus should be on transformation efforts that really question interlinked dominant paradigms, power relations, structures/designs, and material flows that work actively against a more sustainable and socially equitable future. Vicky Temperton argues here that we need a better balance between taking a systemic and systematic approach.

What then can be leveraged from all of these diverse ideas about where and when to intervene? This is clearly an important ongoing dialogue to foster. An important aspect may be to move away from a simplified notion of leverage points that seeks to shift paradigm A to another predefined paradigm, or change rule C to another predefined rule, or facilitate more material flows from actor E to another predefined actor. Rather, deeper transformative capacity may lie in identifying those transformative practices and processes that are capable of joining actors together to co-disrupt/destabilize dominant interlinked paradigms, structures, designs, flows and outcomes and at the same time co-create/stabilize new formations. This necessitates clear attention to how people with different types of transformative capacities can be connected across both scalar and temporal dimensions.



Josie Chambers

Josie Chambers is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. She is broadly interested in the implications of different approaches to environmental governance, and recently investigated the role of diverse collaborative approaches as a postdoctoral researcher with the Luc Hoffmann Institute. She holds a PhD in Geography and MPhil in Conservation Leadership from the University of Cambridge, an MSc in Integrated Resource Management from the University of Edinburgh and a BSc in Integrative Biology from the University of Illinois.

One thought on “Where and when to intervene?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s