Meadows worked in system analysis and proposed a scale of places to intervene in a system. To the degree that the observer is within the system, or "part of it", awareness and manipulation of these levers is an aspect of self-organization.
She started with the observation that there are levers, or places within a complex system (such as a firm, a city, an economy, a living being, an ecosystem, an ecoregion) where a "small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything" (compare: constraint in the sense of theory of constraints).
She claimed we not only need to realise the existence of these shifts (or leverage points) but also to know where they are and how to use them. According to her, most people know where these points are instinctually, but tend to adjust them in the wrong direction. The understanding of these leverage points would be powerful information to solve major global problems such as unemployment, hunger, economic stagnation, pollution, resources depletion, and conservation issues.
After Donella Meadows developed an initial nine points list of places to intervene during a meeting, she detailed a twelve leverage points list with further explanation and examples, for systems in general.
She describes a system as being in a certain state, and containing a stock, with inflows (amounts coming into the system) and outflows (amounts going out of the system). At a given time, the system is in a certain perceived state. There may also be a goal for the system to be in a certain state. The difference between the current state and the goal is the discrepancy.
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)
Parameters are points of lowest leverage effects. Though they are the most clearly perceived among all leverages, they have little impact long term; they do not usually change behaviors. A widely changing system will not be made stable by a change of parameter, nor will a stagnant one dramatically change.
A buffer is a stabilizing stock. The stabilizing buffer is important when the stock amount is much higher than the potential amount of inflows or outflows. In the lake, the volume of water in the lake is the buffer: if there's a lot more of it than inflow/outflow, the system stays stable.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport network, population age structures)
The structure of the system may have enormous effect on how the system operates. So it might also be a leverage point on which to act. However, if a system structure was not built properly, the cost, delays and externalities of the rebuilding may be prohibitive. Sometimes, the structure cannot even be changed at all. So the leverage point might be to understand the system limitations and bottlenecks, and to work on fluctuations.
Another leverage point is in the length of delays. Delays must be carefully considered, as information received too quickly or information received too late could cause either overreaction and underreaction. Very lengthy delays cause oscillations when trying to adjust a system. However, delays are often parameters that can be changed as easily as rate of change.
A negative feedback loop is a control that tend to slow down a process (it refers to the direction of the change). In a system going forward, the negative loop will tend to promote stability (stagnation). The loop will keep the stock near the goal, thanks to parameters, accuracy and speed of information feedback, and size of correcting flows.
A positive feedback loop is a control that tends to speed up a process (it refers to the direction of the change). It is a self-reinforcing loop. Positive feedback loop are sources of growth, of explosion, and sometimes of collapse when the feedback is not under control (in particular of a negative feedback loop). Dana indicates that in most cases, it is preferable to slow down a positive loop, rather than speeding up a negative one.
Information flow is a very important leverage point in a system. It is neither a parameter, nor a re-inforcing or slowing loop, but a new loop delivering information which was not delivered before. It is considered a very powerful leverage, cheaper and easier than infrastructure change.
Rules are very high leverage points. Dana Meadows points out the importance of paying attention to rules, and mostly to who make them.
Self-organization refers to the capacity of a system to change itself by creating new structures; adding new negative and positive feedback loops, promoting new information flows, making new rules.
A goal change has impact on every item listed above, parameters, feedback loops, information and self-organisation.
A society paradigm is an idea, an unstated assumption (for unnecessary to state) that everyone share. Thoughts, or states of thoughts which are sources of systems. Any set of assumptions becomes a paradigm, and therefore re-examining all the fundamental assumptions may lead to new paradigms. Paradigms are very hard to change, but there are no limits to paradigm change. It just requires another way of seeing things. Dana indicates paradigms might be changed by repeatedly and consistently pointing out to anomalities and failures to those with open minds.
Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will. The power of this ability may be literally godlike.