Posted by Ellen Hume
I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
Tipping points are all around me
And so the feeling grows!
It’s not quite as catchy as the original (Love is all around), and probably just as awkward as the Love Actually Billy Mack version (Christmas is all around), but it does make my point that tipping points are all around us, often without us realising.
The world around us is made up of lots and lots of systems and many of these are classed as ‘complex’. Complex systems can have tipping points, where unexpected behaviour and sudden large changes can result from seemingly small actions due to interactions between parts of the system. This is often difficult to anticipate as studying parts of the system separately doesn’t tell us how the system is going to behave as a whole (concept of emergence).
In my previous blog (The point of collapse), I gave the example of an environmental tipping point involving our freshwater ecosystems in New Zealand tipping suddenly into a degraded unhealthy state from gradual changes to the surrounding land. However, as complex systems can include anything from ecosystems, politics, economy and cities, to the human body and the individual cells that compose it, tipping points (both positive and negative) can also be found in these systems.
Here are some real-world examples:
- Public pushback recently helped end the use of single use plastic bags in NZ supermarkets
- Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08 has been a recent key economic tipping point with widespread consequences throughout the subsequent years of recession
- Viral disease epidemics also show tipping points as they reach a critical mass of people infected making it difficult to contain (are we heading this way for measles globally due to a drop in number of people vaccinated?)
- We are being warned of climate tipping points with catastrophic consequences if we don’t contain human-induced global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (can we create a social tipping point that leads to big changes in the way we operate as a society?)
- Companies want their product sales to cross a tipping point in terms of popularity (social media can play a big role in this)
If you are interested in social tipping points I’d recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point or checking out one of the many summaries out there like this.
So what examples of tipping points have you seen around you? What could you do to encourage positive tipping points or halt negative ones? Do you feel like singing out about them? I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes, tipping points are all around me, and so the feeling grows… Maybe, just maybe, it’ll catch on!
Ellen Hume is a University of Auckland PhD student funded by Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence. Her project is looking at tipping points in complex systems to enable better risk-based decision making, with supervision from Cate Macinnis-Ng and Shaun Hendy.