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Learning to turn tables – Operationalizing the leverage points perspective for empirical research

Besides many efforts to turn the tables on our planet’s path to more sustainability, the deep transformation needed in social-ecological systems so far is still missing. As mostly short-term solutions have been implemented, underlying drivers of unsustainable trajectories stay undetected. Recently, a leverage points perspective (LPP) has come more into focus as a possible approach to tackle deep transformation by combining it with other system approaches. Leverage points are known as places of intervention in complex social-ecological systems that enable change. They are separated into fundamental/deep leverage points like the design and intent of a system with more power to change, or superficial/shallow leverage points like parameters and feedbacks with little capability of system change. This distinction permits to assess the potential impact an intervention can have on a system’s condition.
In their new paper, Riechers et al. (2022) develop a process for operationalizing the leverage points perspective in empirical research.

First, the authors discuss how diverse scientific paradigms in research designs can be navigated. Solutions to complex social-ecological issues call for the combination of diverse types and applications of knowledge with different paradigms. Traditionally, the ‘normal science paradigm’ calls for disciplinary handling of knowledge in environmental conservation and management, but this enforced separation supports top-down interventions which cause conflict when implemented without a complete understanding of the needed knowledge. Recently, more transdisciplinary approaches are requested, the so-called ‘postnormal science’ that democratizes science and focuses on knowledge coproduction by various groups. The LPP promotes the bridging of both normal and postnormal scientific paradigms, as the analysis of shallow leverage points translates more into normal science while the analysis of deep leverage points corresponds more with postnormal science paradigms.

Secondly, as the LPP works with various parts and characteristics of social-ecological systems, it allows for a combination of different methods. Riechers et al. show how some methods can be adapted to entail leverage points: On the one hand, methods containing shallow leverage points target more past and present system states or the quantification of system elements, but can often expand to include deep leverage points as well. On the other hand, methods dealing with deep leverage points often utilize participatory and transdisciplinary approaches while including methods to identify causal links. Such combinations of methods can foster knowledge coproduction by researchers of various fields and non-academic actors while creating a shared goal of finding leverage points for sustainable transformation.

Fig. 1 Graphical representation of possible interactions among leverage points (adapted
from unpublished text by J. Hanspach in Riechers et al. 2022)

Next, Riechers et al. point to the transformative potential of interventions. The interactions of shallow, mid-level, or deep leverage points can accentuate inadequacies in interventions in various systemic depths (Fig. 1). For example, different intents pursued by different actors at different levels of the system cause mismatches and subpar sustainability outcomes. Using a LPP can help resolve these inconsistencies.

Lastly, the authors address power imbalances and differing values. If interventions are implemented without facilitating dialogue between divergent understandings of system intents, parameters or feedbacks, they can lead to either inconsistencies or coercion among actors with asymmetric power relations.  This could extend to power imbalances not only between actors, but also actors and their agency to act upon interventions, or actors and the scale of intervention. These imbalances severely limit the transformative power of interventions, and researchers should ensure to increase participative approaches to foster dialogue and social legitimacy that involves all stakeholder’s perspectives.

By analyzing chains of leverage and assessing interventions with parameter, feedback, design and intent levels, the interventions gain more chance of success. The LPP supports the democratization of science by fostering pluralistic dialogue, and is able to bridge approaches of shallower and deeper leverage points. Riechers et al.s operationalization creates the opportunity for innovative, effective solutions for sustainable transformation, which maybe helps to turn the tables just in time.

To check out the original paper by Riechers et al. (2022), click here.

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