Sensitive Intervention Points

Physical science has shown how complex adaptive systems can cross critical thresholds (“tipping points”), such that a relatively small change can trigger a larger change that becomes irreversible, where nonlinear feedback effects act as amplifiers. We are examining how to exploit similar sensitive intervention points (SIPs) and amplification mechanisms in socioeconomic, technological, and political systems to advance climate change mitigation.

Figure: "Kicks" and "shifts" leading to self-reinforcing feedback loops

There are two types of SIPs. The first involves a kick to the current state of the system, moving it onto a new trajectory without any change in the underlying system dynamics. If the new trajectory diverges rapidly from the old trajectory, then a small kick at the right point can trigger a large change. A small kick can be effective when the system is chaotic or when it is near a critical point. Subsidizing renewable energy sources to lower their costs provides an example of a kick.

The second type of SIP involves a shift in the underlying system dynamics, where the rules of the system itself change and trajectories alter substantially. A shift can be effective even without a kick. In the socioeconomic-political sphere, a shift may entail a change in key concepts and institutions. For example, the shift from the rigid Kyoto regime to the more flexible (if still imperfect) Paris structure has altered the rules of the game, enabling new forms of cooperation. Although the distinction between kicks and shifts is clear in theory, in practice SIPs typically involve a mixture of the two and can be difficult to distinguish.

By emphasizing the potential for purposeful intervention to drive nonlinear amplification in complex systems, our approach augments previous studies of social transitions. However, we concentrate specifically on amplification effects (nonlinearities, positive feedbacks, or increasing returns) that can magnify the impact of an intervention. Knowing when this is possible requires an understanding of the underlying dynamics. Opportunities for SIPs may change over time as the system evolves, so paying attention to emerging windows of opportunity is essential.

Further Reading

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