Places to Intervene in a System # 6…

A couple of days ago, while resetting the router in our little ‘caseta’ down the street, I happened to look at the new ICE electric meters installed this month, and noticed a tremendous variation in electricity usage between one unit and the next — like 6:1.  Having been thinking a lot lately about ways to improve energy efficiency of Phase I Villas, I was reminded of one of  the rules in Donella Meadows’ (RIP) classic Places to Intervene in a System. This ‘upgrade’ involves nothing more than adding an information flow:

6. Information Flows:

“In some of the houses of a Dutch housing development, electric meters were installed in the basement; in others, they were installed in the front hall. With no other differences in the houses, electricity consumption was 30 percent lower in the houses where the meter was in the highly visible location in the front hall.

I love that story because it’s an example of a high leverage point in the information structure of the system. It’s not a parameter adjustment, not a strengthening or weakening of an existing feedback loop. It’s a new loop, delivering feedback to a place where it wasn’t going before.

Missing information flows are among the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention, usually much easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical infrastructure. The tragedy of the commons that is crashing the world’s commercial fisheries occurs because there is little feedback from the state of the fish population to the decision to invest in fishing vessels. Contrary to economic opinion, the price of fish doesn’t provide that feedback. As the fish get scarcer, they become more expensive, and it becomes all the more profitable to go out and catch the last few. That’s a perverse feedback, a reinforcing loop that leads to collapse. It is not price information but population information that is needed.

It’s important that the missing feedback be restored to the right place and in compelling form. To take another tragedy of the commons example, it’s not enough to inform all the users of an aquifer that the groundwater level is dropping. That could initiate a race to the bottom. It would be more effective to set the cost of water to rise steeply as the pumping rate begins to exceed the recharge rate.

Other examples of compelling feedbacks are not hard to find. Suppose taxpayers got to specify on their return forms what government services their tax payments must be spent on. (Radical democracy!) Suppose any town or company that puts a water-intake pipe in a river had to put it immediately downstream from its own wastewater outflow pipe. Suppose any public or private official who made the decision to invest in a nuclear power plant got the waste from that facility stored on his or her lawn.

There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions. That’s why there are so many missing feedback loops—and why this kind of leverage point is so often popular with the masses, unpopular with the powers that be, and effective, if you can get the powers that be to permit it to happen (or go around them and make it happen anyway).”

The real-time display of energy use on the dashboard of the Toyota Prius — and the game of hypermiling it makes possible — is another example:  These are real improvements in energy efficiency with no more investment or cost than just feeding back timely information.