Like most SLA members who have a master’s degree, I figure I’ve got enough of a formal education, and I’ve taught, served as a guest-lecturer, and presented regularly over the past few years. But, because sustainability is so pertinent to everything we do now, I felt a need to be a part of the solution. So, I found myself in the role of student again, and it was exhilirating.

I am surprisingly pleased with myself for completing my Sustainable Enterprise Certificate  from Willamette University this spring. The class was an eye-opener, as I thought content would focus on how to interpret some esoteric sustainability index. Instead we looked at system dynamics, leverage points, biomimicry, and the nature of social collaboration—really big ideas—that can produce shifts in people’s thinking about “what is sustainable?” The class literally changed my mind.

Leverage Points

One of the big “aha’s” for me was an article on “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System” by Donella Meadows which opens with:

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big shifts in everything.

It’s a great concept, with a surprising history. If you think about it, isn’t a leverage point kind of the same thing as a magic spell or a secret passage way? Only instead of the missing ingredient for a powerful incantation, these leverage points offer access to positive change.

The highest leverage points change the goals, mindsets, and paradigms of a system to enable a new vision. The lowest leverage points deal with subsidies and buffers, but they rarely change the underlying behavior.

For example, we learned that when you want to facilitate change, look for the places where you can intervene in a system and foresee that your intervention will not only have a ripple effect, the change will be in the right direction. Leverage points can be counterintuitive, so use caution.

Info Pros

As an information professional who researches, organizes and disseminates information, I was not surprised to see that the structure of information flows, that is, who does and does not have access to information, is a fairly high leverage point. As they say, “knowledge is power,” so adding information to a system can be a powerful intervention. 

How do you use leverage points to change a system at the highest levels? Meadows advocates that you follow this advice:         

You keep pointing out the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder and with assurance from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

In our class, we learned how these tools could lead to a more sustainable economic, social and environmental system. But in the back of my mind, I kept coming back to the goals of SLA, and my new role as president-elect. What kind of leverage points could we uncover to facilitate a new, FUTURE READY state? What other sustainability lessons could I apply to move us toward being essential in the new knowledge economy? 

I’ll be mulling this over for the next few weeks as I completely internalize my new sustainability certificate. I hope you have some answers, too.