Donella Meadows recommendations for how to dance with and intervene in systemsby@designforsustainability
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Donella Meadows recommendations for how to dance with and intervene in systems

by Daniel Christian WahlOctober 3rd, 2017
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Donella H.Meadows was one of the co-authors of the 1972 Club of Rome Report on <em>Limits to Growth</em> which contributed to putting the issue of sustainability on the agenda of business and governments. She was a cofounder of the <a href="" target="_blank">Balaton Group</a>, an international network of systems-oriented analysts and activists from over 50 nations.

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Donella H.Meadows was one of the co-authors of the 1972 Club of Rome Report on Limits to Growth which contributed to putting the issue of sustainability on the agenda of business and governments. She was a cofounder of the Balaton Group, an international network of systems-oriented analysts and activists from over 50 nations.

Donella Meadows at her farm (Image)

Shortly before her death in 2001 Donella had been working on the manuscript for a new book, which was to summarize what she had learned from applying the concepts and tools of systems thinking to working for sustainability. Excerpts from this work were published in 2001 by the Whole Earth Review under the title ‘Dancing with Systems’ (Meadows, 2001). Donella Meadows offers a series of general guidelines, how to facilitate positive change in a system.

The list below summarizes the advice Donella Meadows was able to give after more than 30 years of working in the field of sustainability consultancy, research and education. It is an excellent set of guidelines that could help you to improve your own practice, particularly when you work in the kind of complex multi-stakeholder situations that are so commonly encountered as we try to support a systems transformation towards increased sustainability.

Donella Meadows’ Guidelines for Appropriate Participation in Complex System

(Summarized and adapted from Meadows, 2001, pp.1–4)

Get the beat.

Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. Starting with the behaviour of the system forces you to focus on facts not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others. The systems behaviour directs one’s thoughts to dynamic, not static analysis — not only what is wrong? But also how did we get here? And where are we going to end up?

Listen to the wisdom of the system.

Aid and encourage the structures that help the system run itself. Don’t be an un-thinking intervener and destroy the system’s own self-maintenance capacities. Before you charge into the ‘make things better’, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.

Expose your mental models to the open air.

Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible. Mental flexibility — the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure — is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.

Stay humble. Stay a learner.

Trust your intuition more and your figuring-out rationality less. Use both as much as you can, but still be prepared for surprises. In a world of complex systems it is not appropriate to charge forward with rigid, undeviating directives. What’s appropriate when you’re learning is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more about where it’s leading. Honour, facilitate and protect timely and accurate information!

Locate responsibility in the system.

Look for the ways the system creates its own behaviour. Do pay attention to the triggering events, the outside influences that bring forth one kind of behaviour from the system rather than another. Sometimes outside influences can be controlled, and sometimes they can’t. Intrinsic responsibility means that the system is designed to send feedback about the consequences of decision-making directly and quickly and compellingly to the decision-makers.

Make feedback policies for feedback systems.

You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by static, unbending policy. It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system. Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops — loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process.

Pay attention to what is important, not to what is quantifiable.

Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.

If something is ugly, say so.

If something is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsuitable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can [precisely] define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can [precisely] define or measure any value. But if we don’t speak up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak of them and point towards their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.

Go for the good of the whole.

Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole. Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as [creativity], stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability — whether they are easily measured or not. As you think about the system, spend part of your time from a vantage point that lets you see the whole system. Especially in the short term, changes for the good of the whole may sometimes seem to be counter to the interests of a part of the system. It helps to remember that the parts of a system cannot survive without the whole.

Expand time horizons.

The official time horizon of industrial society doesn’t extend beyond what will happen after the next election or beyond the payback period of current investments. In the strict systems sense there is no long-term/short-term distinction. Phenomena at different timescales are nested within each other. Actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come. We are experiencing now consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago. You need to be watching both the short and long terms — the whole system.

Expand thought horizons

Defy the disciplines. In spite of what the textbooks say, or what you think you’re an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from — while not being limited by — economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians. You will have to penetrate their jargon, integrate what they tell you, recognize what they can honestly see through their particular lenses, and discard the distortions that come from the narrowness and incompleteness of their lenses. Interdisciplinary communication works only if there is a real problem to be solved, and if the representatives from the various disciplines are more committed to solving the problem than being academically correct.

Expand the boundary of caring.

Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, and systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones. The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. As with everything else about systems, most people already know the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe what they know.

Celebrate Complexity.

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is non-linear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behaviour on its way somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work. Only part of us, a part that has emerged recently, designs buildings as boxes with uncompromising straight lines and flat surfaces. Another part of us recognizes instinctively that nature designs in fractals, with intriguing detail on every scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic.

Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

Examples of bad behaviour are held up, magnified by the media, affirmed by the culture, as typical. Just what you would expect. After all, we’re only human. The far more numerous examples of human goodness are barely noticed. They are Not News. Fewer actions are taken to affirm and

The guidelines listed above are particularly useful as they are expressed in a language that gives you a flavour of the subtlety of human interactions in multi-stakeholder dialogues and culture change processes. Rather than using hard systems language, Meadows uses a more poetic way to remind us of a few key attitudes and practices that can help us to step out of our own way and let the wisdom of the group guide the process of finding more sustainable solutions.


Another important earlier publication by Donella Meadows introduces you to “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” is also well worth reading. The short paper offers a list of different points of intervention in a system based on a whole systems perspective.

In it Donella makes the crucially important point that the most transformative and effective leverage points are addressed by acting at the level of paradigm-change, by addressing the culture change that would shift the dominant believes about the system. Even more effective, according to Meadows, is the ability to transcend paradigms and acknowledge the wisdom that diverse, possibly even conflicting perspectives can bring to a situation in full recognition that each paradigm also brings with it, its own limitations and blind spots.

Places to Intervene in a System (in increasing order of effectiveness) by Donella Meadows


12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).

11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.

10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).

9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.

8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.

7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.

6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).

5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).

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

3. The goals of the system.

2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.

1. The power to transcend paradigms.

Daniel Christian Wahl works internationally as a consultant and educator in regenerative development, whole systems design, and transformative innovation. He holds degrees in biology (Univ. of Edinburgh / Univ. of California) and Holistic Science (Schumacher College) and his 2006 doctoral thesis (Univ. of Dundee) was on Design for Human and Planetary Health. He was director of Findhorn College between 2007 and 2010, and is a member of the International Futures Forum, a fellow of the RSA, a Findhorn Foundation Fellow and on the advisory council of the Ojai Foundation and the Ecosystem Restoration Camps Foundation. Daniel’s clients have included UNITAR (with CIFAL Scotland), UK Foresight (with Decision Integrity Ltd), Ecover (with Forum for the Future), Bioneers (with the Progressio Foundation, and with the Findhorn Foundation), the Dubai Futures Foundation (with Tellart), The Commonwealth Secretariat (with Cloudburst Foundation), Gaia Education, the Global Ecovillage Network, the State of the World Forum, Balears.t, Camper, LUSH and many educational NGOs, universities, and design schools. He is co-founder of Biomimicry Iberia (2012), and has been collaborating with ‘SmartUIB’ at the University of the Balearic Islands since 2014, and works part-time as Gaia Education’s ‘Head of Design & Innovation’ since 2015. His book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press in the UK in May 2016, has already gained international acclaim, and his blog on Medium has a large international following.