Radical Confidence: Leverage Points for Structural Change

Radical Confidence: Leverage Points for Structural Change

On Independence Day, I spent an absolutely delicious evening with my family glorying in a spectacular sunset next to the Hudson River, followed by a wonderful fireworks display, so freedom from old thinking is on my mind.

Longtime readers of this column might recall an early series of articles I wrote about the system leverage points required to get from the old normal -- our antiquated ego-nomic system -- to the new normal eco-nomic system which will be the organizing principles behind commerce and promoting development and increasing wealth in the 21st Century.

Although I will continue in my role as executive editor of GreenerBuildings.com, as of the end of this month, I will be taking a break from writing weekly columns and focusing on a book that will attempt to sketch an outline for the transition from ego-nomics to eco-nomics.

So it's fitting that in my last four columns, I conclude with some thoughts about the final four leverage points that Professor Donella Meadows wrote about in her seminal piece: Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. [PDF]

Ironically, the first eight of the 12 leverage points are much less effective at promoting change yet are the ones that are most commonly used to try to effect change. First they are about what we do, but not why we do it; that's for the next four.

Although they are most effective, the top four leverage points -- the ones that revolve around the way we think -- usually only come about as a result of some massively, and often tragically, disruptive event. Global environmental calamity, or the threat of it, could be the disruptive event that precipitates the next quantum shift in our thinking. One can only hope.

The last leverage point I talked about almost 2 years ago was changing the rules of the system, which we are beginning to see happening as a result of the changing of the structure of information flows (leverage point number six), as well as leverage point number four, which is this week's leverage point: the Ability to Change and Reorganize the Structure of the System.

We often lament that we would do more green things if it were not so expensive. Books have been filled about executives who embarked on sustainability, including green buildings, as a PR or defensive measure, only to find that it in fact was not only more efficient but it was also more effective and profitable. So was in fact the perception that was holding them back, not the actual activity.

Don't get me wrong, changing the structure of the system is profoundly disruptive and there will be pain, just like in dieting and exercise: going from fat to fit is difficult, no matter what people say. But as my friend Tom Friedman has said regarding the so-called Green Revolution, "if no one's getting hurt, it's not a revolution."

In the natural world, change is driven by the rules of chemistry biology and physics and the checks and balances between them. The DNA for changing the structure of our human systems in this case is creativity driven by need. Lest we are confused by what I mean by "changing the structure of the system," I don't mean adding smart meters to the existing electric grid -- though Truman Semans this week articulates some great ideas about this -- or pricing carbon or requiring LEED for all buildings. Those levers fall at the bottom rungs of leverage points, in the bottom two or three most effective options.

Imagine an economic system that were structured to allow renewable energy sources be less expensive than fossil fuel resources. Due to the vagaries of an 18th-century economic construct in which universal selfishness somehow results in societal good, fossil fuels are priced less expensively -- at least for the time being. By most objective measures, renewable energy is superior to fossil fuel energy: it is cleaner, less dangerous to extract, more evenly distributed, much more abundant. And each year, the sun provides the equivalent of 2,000 years of human energy use.

It's not unlike the story that GreenBiz Group founder Joel Makower recounts about the Air People and the Chair People: what was thought to be an "air problem" turned out to be a "chair problem." Turns out that the structure of the system being used to try and solve that problem was not suitable to do so. Siloed production and thinking is good for producing uniform commodities it is less effective at solving integrated problems: which is exactly the challenge we face in today's buildings.

Right now, our system is designed to reward short-term investment. If we want to change this, in addition to allowing the natural improvement that comes through technological progress, we also need to begin structuring our reward system for the longer-term: looking at sustainability as a "buy and hold" investment not as an operational expense.

The structure of the system reflects the goals of the system, which in turn reflect our deepest thought patterns -- subjects for the next two weeks. The good news is that we can change our thinking and our minds in the blink of an eye; the bad news is that people routinely fight and die over their beliefs. In the end, it's always our choice.

Vancouver photo CC-licensed by Evan Leeson.