Buffers and Stabilizers

Buffers are the things we build or acquire to give us some breathing room. They give us a sense of stability. And building buffers usually means building physical structures. Your bathtub at home is connected to some buffers — perhaps a water tower or reservoir on the outside of town acts to stabilize the water supply in dry seasons.

Like rushing to committee meetings to tweak numbers, building bigger buffers is an instinctive, but not particularly efficient strategy. For example, if the waiting list for affordable housing is long, building more low-cost dwellings might seem like a really good, viable solution. But increasing the buffer of your low-rent housing is extremely expensive, especially if it comes as the alternative to intervening in other ways that could diminish the demand for cheap housing without jumping to the knee-jerk reaction of increasingly the supply of cheap housing. In other words: if there was another way to assist people getting off the waiting list for affordable houses without building more affordable houses, wouldn’t that be more desirable everyone?

Building bigger buffers is tempting. And sometimes they are necessary. But buffering capacity is not always the most creative solution or intervention. A city that finds itself facing summer droughts will likely try to think of various ways to manage or conserve water use before running ahead to build more infrastructure that will, in turn, consume further maintenance, repair, and operating costs. The problem with the buffer-building strategy is that it usually involves building more infrastructure…


Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Buffers and Stabilizers' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on October 21, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=17110
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