Information Flows

Changing the way information is shared can have significant implications in the way a system self-organizes. Consider the affect that electronic highway information signs have on congestion: by warning drivers of blocked lanes or slow traffic ahead, some motorists will choose different routes, helping the highway system to partially ‘self-correct’ around the bottleneck. Aside from constructing signs and designing a data network for accurate updates, this intervention does not require significant infrastructure development. No new roads are built. Simply by changing the way information flows within the system, motorists are incentivized to use existing infrastructure more efficiently.

Information flows are often valuable leverage points for conservation efforts. For example, imagine what would happen if you moved your hydro meter into your front hallway, instead of leaving it hidden outside of your house or in your basement. Simply by presenting yourself with a constant reading of the cost of your energy use you would probably begin to consume less power. Nothing fundamentally changed about your house. The only thing we tweaked was the way information about energy is distributed. (Or consider the potential of having energy usage notifications piped directly to your smartphone.)

Greater transparency in corporations or governments can yield similar outcomes. For example, when a particular industry is required to report on pollution outputs, companies scramble to clean up their acts in a desperate attempt to not feature as prominent members on the ‘Top Ten Biggest Polluters’ list. Once again, the only ‘change’ made here is broadening the reach of information, but sharing information differently can produce new incentivizes.

Dynamic highway traffic update signs, hydro consumption monitoring, and transparency legislation all have something in common: they effectively add new loops to the system. Behaviour and information are inextricably related. You, your customers, your users, or your clients are constantly responding to variables. When you change the way information moves, you change the decision-making environment for everyone.

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020). 'Information Flows' (in System Thinker Notebook). Originally published on August 5, 2020. Accessed on September 29, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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This page is currently a subsection of 'Leverage Points' in the System Thinker Notebook manuscript. Structure and document location subject to change. Use as permanent identifier for this document if linking externally.

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