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A Framework for Changing Complex Systems

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Today, technological harm is outpacing current solutions. We see the effects in seemingly disparate areas — fragile democracies, degraded mental health, growing political polarization, conspiracy theories going mainstream, and distrust of journalism and institutions. The issues we face are complex and they are ever-evolving. But they are not disparate, they are systemic

Where do we go from here? Our natural human response to a challenge is to search for an actionable solution. Something that we can do, ideally now. But complex problems require systems-level solutions. Thus, we must elevate the discussion beyond harms and towards a systems perspective. Inspired by Donella Meadows’ 12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System, we developed a simplified framework of leverage points for how to intervene in the extractive tech ecosystem.


 The Leverage Points Framework shows that:

  • Change happens at multiple levels with different degrees of impact. Generally, leverage increases from left to right on the framework. However, so does the difficulty of implementing change.
  • Change does not happen linearly. Rather, interventions across the framework can and should happen simultaneously.
  • Change is dynamic. Today’s extractive tech ecosystem is complex and constantly evolving. Thus, intervention points are dynamic with interactions among leverage points. As the extractive tech ecosystem evolves, so should this framework. 
  • Change requires multiple stakeholders. While not represented in the framework, a diversity of stakeholder groups are essential to provide leverage across all intervention points. For instance, philanthropic organizations can shift the economic goal of our system by helping fund and support businesses or programs that are pushing for stakeholder models (as opposed to shareholder ones).

 The framework demonstrates why pushes for immediate design tweaks at major platforms must be paired with longer-term systemic reform, like changing the fundamental business models. Because of this, multiple efforts at multiple points of leverage are important.


As follows are working definitions and examples for each lever:

1. Platform Changes are adjustments that platforms themselves make to the design (visual, interactive, etc.) of their platforms. For example, platforms can choose to prompt users via a notification to read an article before sharing it. While these design changes can have material impact (e.g., an action like changing the Share button), they don’t address root cause issues stemming from the operating model.

2. Internal Governance Changes are implemented by decision-makers within platforms to shift how internal systems and structures operate. Examples could include having The Facebook Oversight Board oversee unsafe design features (not simply whether a piece of content is bad or good) or changing employee bonuses to pay out for increasing people’s safety and well-being (not for increasing user engagement).

3. External Regulation Changes occur when outside forces, such as legislators or regulators, pass laws that set common platform safety requirements, limit age-appropriate design features, force interoperability with competing platforms, or create liabilities for unsafe business practices or harms. While these changes take longer to enact, they are more enduring with higher impact potential. Recent examples include the GDPR, COPPA, and the proposed KIDS Act.

4. Business Model Changes shift the fundamental operations and profit structures of a firm. An example would include a social media platform that moves to a subscription model with a sliding scale to ensure broad access. Business model changes may arise from internal or external regulation, supply and demand changes (e.g., a lawsuit that makes the current “viral engagement” business models unaffordable, therefore changing what venture capitalists deem profitable), or operating system changes (e.g., Apple changing iOS to limit user tracking and reducing the profitability of surveillance business models.)

5. Economic Goal Changes take place when the orientation of the system itself transforms through regulation, investor behavior, new financial models, or new market entrants. An example would be if Facebook was accountable to metrics that reflect a healthier society (instead of optimizing for quarterly profits) or was turned into a public benefit corporation based on a stakeholder model as opposed to a shareholder model.

6. Operating Paradigm Changes are the highest leverage point and are the most difficult to achieve. They occur when there is widespread change in our core beliefs, values, behaviors, and operating norms. Examples include:

  • A mass shift in consumer sentiment, as with Big Tobacco and cigarettes, which over several decades went from being “cool” to dangerous and lethal. Similarly, this could happen in public attitudes towards “viral engagement” social media with people shifting to seeing it as dangerous. 
  • A change in the cultural beliefs of technologists, who shift to seeing attention-harvesting, “race to the bottom of the brain stem” addictive platforms as unethical and dangerous to society. 
  • As a society, changing the North Star of what we’re seeking. This could be done by asking ourselves, is our ultimate goal to have “30% less toxic social media” than we do now? Or is it to build humane technology that enables thriving 21st-century digital societies?

This is a preliminary framework. We'd value your feedback on how to improve it. Please drop us a note at with your thoughts.

Published on
November 12, 2021

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