A leverage points perspective on transformation: Invitation to a Global Conversation


From India to Mexico, from Bachelor students to senior scientists – people with a shared interest in social-ecological systems research from all over the world exchanged their ideas and discussed questions in four sessions of the online seminar series “Social-ecological systems: A global conversation”. Between October 2021 and February 2022 members of Leuphana University’s Social-Ecological Systems Institute shared their work with the world. This June, one more session will take place. Dave Abson and Julia Leventon will discuss the application of a leverage points lens as a way of exploring transformative change in complex adaptive social-ecological systems.

The notion of leverage points was first described by the systems thinker Donella Meadows, as places in complex systems where relatively small interventions can cause systemic changes. Meadows (1999) identified 12 leverage points from relatively easy places to intervene, but with limited capacity for systemic change (e.g., changing incentives, rules, or shortening system…

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Where do we go from here? A blog post on crisis and leverage

This post is written by Julia Leventon, Ioana Duse, Felix Beyers, Tamara Schaal and Josefine Laudan. They work together as a research group at Leuphana University, headed by Julia. The projects they work on are primarily focused on systems change for sustainability, within the food and textiles systems. Julia is currently in the Czech Republic with her family (and therefore in week 2 of lock-down), the others are at home in Germany.

On day 5 of quarantine, I (Julia) walked to the top of the hill at the back of my house. I sat for a bit and listened to the bird song. And for the first time in days, I felt like there might be some hope. I am scared right now, for my family and friends, for my colleagues, and for people I have never met; for humanity. Covid-19 is challenging and removing the structures that we live our lives around. We don’t feel safe, and the systems we trusted to look after us are failing. But like many working in sustainability, I haven’t felt safe for a long time. There are injustices everywhere I look, and climate change related deaths are rocketing, hidden, but on an unimaginable scale.

So why do I have hope?

I have hope because once we have survived the coming months, we need to rebuild. This storm will pass and the choices we make now could change our lives forever. We don’t have to rebuild our systems to the way they were before. We have a chance to do things differently, and to align the world with the values that we are now seeing emerge. Those of altruism, collective action, community. Shown in instances of community organizing to deliver groceries to vulnerable people; or opening cultural and intellectual resources; or connecting with our neighbours in a shared goal; and recognizing the value of the workers who really keep the food on our tables, and help us fight disease.

These are values that have been hidden, buried or squashed by the world’s power structures – pushing us into profiteering for the individual as our end goal, and ignoring the common good. This goal is institutionalized within our current food system, driving down prices to consumers and the price paid to producers, and forcing the industrialization of our farming landscapes, with negative consequences to livelihoods, cultural heritage, and biodiversity. It is institutionalized in our textile industry, driving down prices to consumers and the price paid to workers, creating chemical pollution and unsafe working environments for poverty wages. In pursuing profit (for the few) as our end goal in such systems, we are destroying our world, and the people within it.

In our work, we are interested in processes of transformation – how we create more sustainable food and textile systems. We have been working with Donella Meadows’ framework of Leverage Points to intervene in a system in order to create fundamental change. In our case, we are looking at how we can intervene to create more sustainable systems. The basic framework is that we can engage with shallow leverage points, such as materials and resources within the system. While easy things to change (e.g. adjust subsidies to farmers), they don’t do much to change the sustainability of the system (as evidenced by the failure of CAP to really protect Europe’s biodiversity in agricultural landscapes). Alternatively, we can engage with deeper leverage points, such as goals and system intent. These are much harder to change, but will bring about more fundamental transformation, and will necessarily cause changes at all of the shallower leverage points too.


The Leverage Points framework (graphic by Dave Abson). More information on how we engage with the framework in research is here.

From our perspectives as sustainability governance researchers, these deep leverage points are hard to engage with because of path dependencies in the system. The structure reinforces the goals and values that are incorporated within it; it’s hard to change the individual goals while they have to work within a particular system, and even if you do, there is little they can do to act on it. This is the fundamental problem of e.g. asking individuals to act sustainably. We can all want to do the sustainable thing, but we also all have to survive within the economic and political world that we live in. We know that there are many agricultural producers who want to produce food in sustainable ways, and would like to sustain cultural practices that are good for biodiversity, but can’t because it will force them out of business (forthcoming in Tamara Schaal’s PhD publications). Similarly, we know that changing the structures of the system without changing the values and goals of people within it will likely lead to a rejection of those structures, and some failed initiatives. For example, my own PhD research (and other pieces of research from other scholars, for example here and here) showed that downloading of the pre-existing EU governance system into the newer member states was problematic, and lead to instances of failed policy implementation, because the people and organisations that were supposed to be implementing it rejected the goals, norms and assumptions that it incorporated.

But we have also been working on identifying those moments at which we have an opportunity to adjust the goals of the system. We were inspired by Baumgartner and Jones’ punctuated equilibrium theory, which shows that policy systems remain in equilibrium, without fundamental change, until there is a big shock in the system. A punctuation to the equilibrium. They use examples of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and its impact on nuclear policy in the US. It has since been applied to how Fukishima created a punctuation in Germany’s nuclear policy. Recently, we have been looking at how similar punctuations occur in a policy-change process in the Romanian food system; we have noticed how events and interruptions in the negotiation process have created windows of opportunity for actors to influence the goals that are being incorporated into the policy (Forthcoming in Ioana Duse’s PhD publications).

Covid-19 is a punctuation in our equilibrium, a ‘breakout’ from our established routines There are many calls to start the conversation about shifting our food systems (e.g. here and here). In particular, there are calls to reflect on what we have learned about our food system as the inequities and vulnerabilities that are built within it become so visible in our empty supermarket shelves, and unavailable home-delivery slots for vulnerable people.

Our contribution to this debate is to say that we should take this challenging punctuation point, and use it to engage with the deepest of Leverage Points. This is not to say we welcome this opportunity; indeed proponents of degrowth argue for equitable transformations, that provide wellbeing and satisfy needs (which is very much NOT the situation we are currently experiencing). However, once this “window is closed” the chance to take the opportunity is no longer possible. Therefore, once the dust settles, we should be looking to rebuild our systems towards different goals. Goals that more closely align with the values we now see coming to the fore. It remains to be seen if we build on this opportunity and adopt the path of altruism, collective action and community or we choose to treat everything under politics-as-usual and prolong the crises, which will probably result in even more catastrophic outcomes and a failed system transformation. Unfortunately, there is precendent for doing the latter – carbon emissions rose sharply after the 2008 financial crisis, where we responded with fiscal stimuli to return to business as usual. With this crisis, we need to choose a different path.

So how do we choose a different path?

This is the critical question. As sustainability scientists, this is where we have a role to play. We can draw on what we know about transformation and change, and start to put the pieces of our knowledge together. At the same time, we need to be careful not to over-stretch what we know, and not to leap in, treating COVID-19 as the latest buzzword in our academic publishing game (I’m looking at you publishers and the explosion of special issues). Therefore, we close by asking the question – what can we learn from other punctuations to change the trajectory we are on? What do we know from systems change to inform how we pick ourselves up from here? Perhaps future blog posts follow…

New article: Indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research: a literature review

Ideas for Sustainability

By David Lam

Our new study investigated the role of indigenous and local knowledge in sustainability transformations research. Sustainability transformations entail fundamental alterations of how people interact with nature.

In sustainability science, indigenous and local knowledge has been acknowledged to make vital contributions, for instance, for biodiversity conservation and environmental resource management. Furthermore, global sustainability research initiatives, such as the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) specifically include indigenous and local knowledge into their assessments because of its in-depth local, and place-based character.

Our comprehensive study reviewed 81 peer-reviewed articles on transformation, transition, and change that include indigenous and local knowledge.

Our results show that this body of literature often applied indigenous and local knowledge to confirm and complement scientific knowledge in contexts of environmental, climate, social-ecological, and species change. This research can be clustered according to the environments in which researchers as well as indigenous peoples…

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The impacts of social-ecological system change on human-nature connectedness: A case study from Transylvania, Romania

By Ágnes Balázsi

How were social and institutional shifts of the last century perceived by communities of rural areas in Transylvania and how have those changes influenced the connectedness of locals with nature and their landscapes? – These were the starting research questions in our case studies carried out in 2017 in Erdővidék and Aranyosszék. The answers were revealed to us because locals shared stories about their perceptions on landscape changes and confessions about inner connections to nature.

In our recently published paper we distinguished four major governance eras that have influenced human-nature connections:

(1) formal and informal institutional governance after the World Wars and before socialism (before 1947), (2) top-down governance during socialism (1947–1989),

(3) during sovereign state governance and transition to European Union (1990–2006), and

(4) multilevel governance since European Union accession (after 2007).


The two areas were similar at the beginning of the 20th century, but developed differently in their intensity of landscape management in the 21st century.

Fig. 1. Timeline of social-ecological system changes as described by local interviewees. The figure shows big events in Romanian history above the timeline. Below, we outline the four eras that our respondents talk about, and summarise the perceived broad changes in social-ecological systems.

Our conclusions of this study were that material connections have weakened as a result of changes in food production and rising consumerism. Experiential and emotional connections were influenced by socio-economic and landscape management changes. Cognitive connections reflected changes in the knowledge system on the environment. Philosophical connection was influenced by changes in ideologies and globalization. Our findings highlight the central influence of social and institutional change on perceived human-nature connectedness. Understanding this influence provides important pointers for how to reconnect humanity to nature in the coming decades.

Another special issue: Human-nature connectedness as leverage point for sustainability transformation

By Maraja Riechers

The notion of human-nature connectedness and specifically the idea of reconnecting people to nature are rapidly gaining prominence in sustainability science, conservation biology, environmental psychology and education. Scholars argue, for example, that an emotional and experiential connection with nature has many positive outcomes for human well-being, especially health or the cognitive development of children and pro-environmental behavior and may promote conservation initiatives of natural and cultural heritage.

Ignoring these effects could lead to a downward spiral of ever increasing disconnection of people and societies from nature, which may further exacerbate the global environmental crisis by enhancing un-sustainable behavior patterns. Based on this, scholars state a need for strengthening human connections with nature. Yet, many calls for such ‘reconnection’ lack concrete insights about what human-nature connection means and how it might be fostered.

In our special issue in the journal Ecosystems and People we would like to address the multi-dimensional complexity of human-nature connectedness and emphasize its implications for sustainable landscape management. We propose that human-nature connectedness (and related concepts such as nature relatedness, natures’ contribution to people, connectivity with nature etc.) have great potential to be a leverage point for sustainability transformation. Leverage points are places in a system where relatively minor interventions can lead to relatively major changes.

Inspired by the seminal paper by Donella Meadows (Places to intervene in a system, 1999) our proposed issue will focus on the relationship between humans and nature and how it can be used as a leverage point to foster sustainability. The relevance of findings for decision making and management is a crucial aspect as the leverage points perspective addresses intervention within a system.

This special issue is based on the great success of the Leverage Points 2019 conference at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, particular on its theme of human-nature connectedness. Hence, we welcome contributions from anyone involved or concerned with the connectedness between humans and nature. We particularly invite participants of the Leverage Points 2019 conference, young scholars and non-academic authors, as we aim at including a diverse group of authors from different backgrounds, disciplines and geographic origins.

We invite contributions which present innovative and new ideas, concepts and methods, empirical case studies such as, but not limited to:

  • relational values
  • local indigenous knowledge
  • biocultural diversity
  • gender aspects
  • transdisciplinary, and
  • alternative science communication/arts-based approaches

We are looking forward to receiving your contributions!

Ágnes Balázsi, Marina García Llorente, Jacqueline Loos, and Maraja Riechers

Learning to collaborate while collaborating

By Rebecca Freeth

None of us was born knowing how to collaborate. We learn to collaborate. For most of us working as researchers or practitioners in the field of sustainability, collaboration is intrinsic to how we work. Which gives us endless opportunities to learn to collaborate while collaborating.

There’s ample evidence that projects designed for intensive collaboration, whether inter- or transdisciplinary, get watered down to “additive multidisciplinarity” (Roy et al., 2013: 745). This is at least in part due to failures to navigate collaboration challenges, from finding conceptual common ground to managing interpersonal tensions (Haider et al., 2017; Klein, 1996; Strober, 2011). Indeed, collaboration is “unabatedly demanding” (Defila and Di Giulio, 2018: 101). Even if you’re a researcher with considerable team experience, a new project can present novel and unexpected collaboration challenges. Learning to collaborate is life-long.

In the Leverage Points project, we also experienced some challenges. During my interviews with members of the team, I heard my colleagues say things like:

“At the beginning, I thought it was interesting that people had different viewpoints and backgrounds. Now … we’re having to decide which ones are going to be larger driving forces in our work.”

 “I find it exciting that people are so different and sometimes I overlook the fact that it might also be very difficult.”

Having to navigate quite fundamental differences – which may lead not only to confusion and misunderstanding, but to conflict – can create distinct discomfort (Strober, 2011). In our article “Learning to collaborate while collaborating: Advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research” (2019), Guido Caniglia and I propose treating team research as a magnificent opportunity to experience discomfort, allowing it to point out our next collaborating growth point. Horst (2013: 39) argues that in collaboration, “…a sense of discomfort often works as an alarm signal that calls for further investigation.” This aligns with experiential learning theories, which suggest that, under the right conditions, discomfort can prompt us to re-examine difficult experiences and learn from them (Kolb, 1984; Mezirow, 2009). Alternatively, if experiences of discomfort are not addressed, they can undermine both the enjoyment and the epistemic outcomes of collaborative research projects.

Or, using the language of leverage points for change (Meadows 2008) and the way we clustered these in our project (Abson et al. 2016), we can think about this as working with the deeper leverage points of intent and design.


The deepest source of leverage is intent. Being curious about my discomfort involves revisiting my paradigms about how collaboration should happen. If I catch myself thinking: this collaboration would work so much better if ‘they’ adopted my methods / thought more like me / had a more positive attitude (like me), then my assumptions deserves further exploration.

But it’s a lot to expect each of us, individually, to continuously excavate our assumptions. Another deep leverage point is design. This means that when a collaborative research project is first conceptualized, it is advantageous to think about how it can foster learning to collaborate.  While team members are working together, how can the underlying conditions of their work (project goals, the ways in which information flows and opportunities to self-organize) support them to reflect and learn, especially from moments of discomfort?

So what collaborative skills can we learn? The literature is already full of good ideas. In the table below, we have identified some of the key challenges and matched them to some of the good ideas we found.

Collaborative challenge Collaborative skill
1. Difficulties of finding common ground Cultivate both “methodological groundedness” and “epistemological agility” for a strong scientific base from which to explore other ways of knowing (Haider et al., 2017: 6)
2. High levels of complexity, uncertainty and conceptual ambiguity Build thinking skills for engaging with complexity (Cilliers, 2001).

Develop skills for dealing with uncertainty (Tauritz, 2012)

3.        Lack of skill to synthesize and integrate knowledge Build ability and experience in interdisciplinary literacy (Lotrecchiano et al., 2016)
4. Interpersonal tensions, exacerbated by disciplinary territoriality and competitiveness Hone “social sensitivity” – i.e. a combination of empathy, honesty, clarity, integrity and accountability (Cheruvelil et al., 2014: 33)
5. Lack of skill in managing interpersonal tensions Develop deliberation, negotiation and conflict resolution skills (Cheruvelil et al., 2014; Wiek et al., 2016)
6. Power asymmetries Learn to regard differences as meaningful (MacMynowski, 2007) and to harness them to the benefit of the collective (Carr et al., 2018)
7. Divergent and competing expectations, values and norms Develop research practices that include pausing and paying productive attention to tacit tensions, including those resulting from restrictive administrative and policy requirements (Reich and Reich, 2006)

A future step, which I look forward to taking with Guido and others, will be to design workshops and courses for developing and practicing these kinds of collaborative skills.

Special Feature in Sustainability Science

After an unfortunate delay (due to our desire to select the journal most appropriate for this work) we are pleased to announce that the special feature on “Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformations” has been accepted in the Journal Sustainability Science and we are now accepting extended abstracts for the feature.

This special issue is a result of the Leverage Points Conference 2019 in Lüneburg, Germany. It is inspired by the seminal essay by Donnella Meadows “Leverage Points Places to intervene in a system”. In this work, Meadows highlighted a series of leverage points—places in complex systems where a small shift may lead to fundamental changes in the system as a whole. In particular, she noted the tendency to focus on highly tangible, but essentially weak leverage points. Instead, she urged a focus on perhaps less obvious, but potentially far more powerful areas of intervention. Following Meadows’ work we seek to explore (in theory, empiricism and praxis) the metaphor of leverage points in order to foster sustainability transformations.

This special issue will ask: how do we transform ourselves, our science, our institutions, our interventions and our societies for a better future? We thus invite papers that were presented during Leverage Points 2019 on:

  • Re-structuring institutions for transformative change
  • Re-connecting people and nature as a deep leverage point
  • Re-thinking how we know and act in relation to sustainability transformations
  • Systems thinking and complexity as tools for transformation
  • Transformative research practices in sustainability science

Extended abstracts of 700-800 words should be submitted to leventon@leuphana.de before 30thJune, 2019. To ensure quality editing this special issue will be restricted to 15 articles in total.

More details on the special feature can be found here

https://www.springer.com/environment/environmental+management/journal/11625/PSE?detailsPage=press (see “Call for Papers” at the bottom of the page).


Could the long-term transdisciplinary engagement of a university make a difference in a place?

The Transylvania transdisciplinary case study is coming to an end and there is one more milestone to face. This last step is decisive for the impact of the overall case. The launch of a book on transformational knowledge in one of the Transylvanian villages will mark eight years of collaborative research led by Leuphana University in Southern Transylvania. This blog entry is taking a final stock of this sometimes difficult but meaningful journey, weaves and ties its loose ends together.

The place and the challenge

Southern Transylvania is home to a great natural and cultural diversity, making it one of the largest areas of high nature value farmland in the European Union. Yet, its landscapes are threatened by numerous changes happening within and outside this region, such as draining migration, tenure changes, or the influence of the global markets. Navigating these changes while conserving the unique heritage and responding to global pressures and local aspirations have outlined a delicate balancing act.


The people

Both science and society have responded to the regional sustainability challenge in Transylvania. On the one hand, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have acted through numerous initiatives dealing with nature and cultural heritage conservation, supporting small-scale farming, or rural community development and education. These local bright spots are vibrant, locally relevant and leading the pathway to transformation. On the other hand, since 2011 Leuphana University has been present in the area carrying out place-based social-ecological research dedicated to a holistic understanding of Southern Transylvania. Organically, the foundations of a science|society partnership were laid starting with 2014. The main goal was to create a safe interfacing space that supports, enhances, connects and scales the efforts of those engaged in transformation in Transylvania. Hence, we set out to recognise, capitalise and nurture what was already wonderfully there: the seeds of a sustainable Transylvania.


The research

The University’s engagement with this ‘place’ since 2011 allowed us to steadily build a deep understanding of concrete local problem constellations and carry out a complete ‘ideal typical’ transdisciplinary case study. It is relatively uncommon for a research project to succeed in completing all phases of such a process going from Phase A – problem framing, to Phase B – Co-production of knowledge, and Phase C – Integration of co-produced knowledge.  Under this collaborative mode of research the ties at rural community level and between Southern Transylvania’s practitioners of change were strengthened through innovative approaches like design-based, serious games, physical mapping. By working with farmers’ associations and rural communities, the transdisciplinary partnership between the university and the local change agents has also developed a shared understanding of landscape stewardship and the notion of ‘a common good’. Mutual learning enabled contributions towards building the local identity, empowerment and perceptions on agency. The partnership also aimed to foster the dialogue of the newly surfaced and consolidated network of practitioners of change in Southern Transylvania with the local Government, municipalities, and policymakers. To this end, we designed and applied a social network analysis methodology based on leverage points. We also surfaced underlying value orientations and motivations for working towards sustainability in Transylvania, and elicited local understandings of sustainability. What we learned from this in terms of leverage points is that relationships at community level and deeply held values are potential intervention points for prompting the future we want to see in Transylvania.


The women’s association in Viscri 

The impact

Behind these eight years of collaborative research there were (field)work, skills deployed, there were emotions and there were bits of soul invested in being part of the change, in co-creating processes and knowledge and in developing mutually transforming and empowering relationships. We touched one way or the other more than 50 organisations that took part in the multiple group discussions, dialogues and negotiations we provided (voicing) space for. We take this opportunity to wholeheartedly and gratefully thank all of them. A database of Transylvania’s seeds is hopefully on its way to becoming a website. The desired vision for Southern Transylvania’s future called “Balance Brings Beauty”, that we helped co-create back in 2012, continues to act as a boundary object for the region and to draw people near. Finally, we grew together with the increasing network of collaborations between Transylvania’s agents of change. As a result, we are part of the Transylvanian Highlands Eco destination management board together with another dozen organisations.

The (green) book(s)

An outreach publication of success stories and experiences on transformational strategies for moving closer to a sustainable future in Southern Transylvania is ready for the check-out phase of the case. The ideas explored in this book rest on the honest collaborative effort of many like-minded and like-hearted people. Three annual overarching workshops dedicated to the co-creation of Transylvania’s contextualised transformation pathway (September 2016, June 2017, September 2018), approximately ten focus groups on the management of community resources such as pastures, and more than 50 interviews around different strategies for reaching “Balance Brings Beauty” back up the information presented here. We envisioned this (third) book on transformational knowledge as an instrument that paves the way for dialogue and collaboration with policymakers. To some extent Transylvania is growing into a global role model for sustainability and we trust this book will serve when walking the path from vision to action. This book is the corollary of a series of books that marked our research journey: the blue book and the red book.


A final step

The launch of the Green Book, with an impressive number of 60 confirmations, is scheduled for the 21st of March. We dedicate this event to all those who love this place. We conclude our part of involvement urging them to turn into action the principles, experience and values that came out of our common work. During our unrivalled experience in the region we believe having found the answer to the above question: „Could the long-term transdisciplinary engagement of a university make a difference in a world’s place?”. Still, we think it is important that the people of Transylvania find their answer.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it”

Relational Thinking

This is a Conference Report on Leverage Points 2019, 6-8 February 2019, Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany

By Maraja Riechers and Joern Fischer


What can we do to actually turn around global patterns of un-sustainability? How can we bring about transformative change? What role do different types of leverage points play in such a transformation? – These were some of the questions addressed at the inaugural Leverage Points 2019 Conference at Leuphana University Lueneburg, Germany, which was attended by well over 400 participants.

A guiding theme throughout the conference was the idea of “leverage points”, as formulated by Donella Meadows in her seminal essay on “Places to intervene in a system”. Her idea has, since then, inspired a new suite of work on leverage points, as exemplified and detailed in recent papers from Leuphana University and elsewhere (e.g. here, here, and here). Key themes addressed at…

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