GSI Seminar Series Workshop Special – Tim Lenton: Positive Tipping

Taken from Daneen Cowling’s Blog 

On 5th May we kicked off our summer seminar series. This seminar was a special hosted by our GSI Director Professor Tim Lenton. Tim hosted a workshop on Positive Tipping Points; sources of hope within our societal and economic structures, leading on from a brief introduction he gave outlining the progress and research on these tipping points and their potential. Tim’s talk triggered it’s own tipping point of engaged discussions and enthusiasm for the research and projects. These discussions continued in short break-out room sessions which was a great opportunity to share the diversity in ideas and experiences of the topics raised. The event ignited an enthusiasm for Positive Tipping Points, which we hope has wet the apatite for more sessions on these themes.

Professor Tim Lenton has been a leader in researching the Earth System and the feedbacks and tipping points that have influence on climate changes, past and present. Now as Director of the GSI at the University of Exeter, Tim is channeling new visions to invest research energy to systems-thinking solutions. To find out more about Tims leading direction of the GSI, see this blog post.

Tim introduced Positive Tipping Points with a concise but incredibly informative 30 minute talk, covering an array of hot topics of climate change solution transformations. The talk started with an examination of familiar Earth System Tipping Points that have been identified through deep time, and predicted to occur in the future. But, as important as this research is – what good is coming from prioritisation of understanding of the problems without giving equal/more attention to the solutions.

Tim argued that there is a desperate need to now understand how social tipping points can be triggered. It is clear that to get to Net-Zero and out an of ecological emergency, the changes required need to happen as rapid transformations. So to meet this rate and magnitude, tipping points are needed.

Similar to natural tipping points, this would allow our current system state to tip into a new stable state. This will come once we cross thresholds of elements in the system, that will override the resistance of opposing forces and negative feedbacks that work to maintain the current system state. To demonstrate this, Tim showed an animation created by Chris Boulton to show the classic ball tipping out of a dip (business as usual), over a hill into a new dip (stable state). We therefore need to identify what are the self-propelling feedbacks, how strong they are, and how we can make them stronger.

But are positive feedbacks just a theory? Tim proved they are very much real and already have had impact, with several historical examples of social and technological tipping changes. One example, an image comparison of 5th Avenue, New York City, showing a single car immersed in horse-drawn carriages, to 13 years later, a single horse-draw carriage amongst a road full or cars. Image below.

Image source: Picture comparisons of Easter Day parade in NYC and the transition to motor vehicles.

Other examples were also highlighted: Technology Adaption revealing trends from 1860-2019 showing a signature ‘S’ curve, a result of Economies of Scale (the more things being made = the cheaper they are to make), a reinforcing feedback (see Comin and Hobin, 2014). Social Contagion being an intrinsic reinforcing feedback in society, by imitation of each other to spread through society. The threshold of society to adopt new norms is said to be ~20%, this has been evidenced with the example of introduction and neighborhood adoption of roof solar panels.

Also shown was Tims recent work looking at trends, early warnings and tipping points in the car industry – specifically with Electronic Vehicles (EVs). Norway have exemplified a tipping point, now the difference in price of petrol has resulting in EV’s breaching a new share in the market, now at ~50%. Economies of scale have also played a part, with battery prices decreasing over time with the increase in sales, with a trend that suggests a EV’s will be the same price to manufacture than fuel combustion cars in 3 years, globally! Price of batteries has been a key reinforcing feedback to bring about this positive tipping point.

Who needs to come together to help things spread globally? Tim discussed this in the context of his work with Simon Sharpe (2021), and the importance of upward scaling tipping cascades – how reaching one tipping point can create opportunities for further tipping points. Tim used the example of the UK coal industry to highlight some of the triggers and tipping points that create transformative change. A combination of increased renewable power capacity, price of carbon production and policies putting pressure of coal use helped reduce the UK usage. From these changes came investor expectation changes, which then alters distribution of resource leading to irreversible events, such as the demolition of Didcot coal station. The rest of the world are increasingly becoming reliant on renewable sources of power, through interactions of economical, industry, social and political tipping points.

Tim then introduced the work with SystemIQ, to identify and understand positive tipping points in the Food and Land Systems. Again, reinforcing feedbacks are key to push towards a tipping point. Such reinforcing feedbacks can range from:

  • Economies of scale
  • Learning by Doing
  • Social Contagion
  • Positive Experience
  • Information Flow

A transition to positive tipping can exist as: Performance –> Price Convenience –> Cultural Norm –> Tipping Point. Transitions and tipping points can also be explored at smaller spatial scales – with research in collaboration with Pivot Project and City Future to use Exeter as a system to identify tipping points for sustainable futures, with work on the Exeter Living Lab.

Do we have power to predict and influence these tipping points? Using Early Warning Signals such as Ar-1 and Variance in a system could help us understand when we might be approaching a Positive Tipping Point, and what we need to focus on to nudge the system closer to threshold. Hence, change is to be deliberate and nudge the various elements of a system to reinforce feedbacks and create in momentum in the right direction.

Tim highlighted, this may help empower the public to feel part of the hope and power to change the course of climate change, just through actions they make within the complex system they exist in. Awareness that we do live in a complex system that is not and cannot be managed, but instead is a product of a full agency of feedbacks. This will involve a shift from the compartmentalized way of solution thinking and to trust in the things we cannot control. With this, we can move away from incremental change, but to the transformative change that is needed for the scale of problem.

Discussions around all these topics lead to some interesting conversations in the chat and short group sessions. The time to act was yesterday, but learning what is the best action, how we trigger it and when to apply pressure, will allow deliberative positive tipping. Local to global, social to political – all nudges and feedbacks that interact and cascade will allow a faster rate of transition.

To hear Tim’s talk in full, you watch it via YouTube here. Please note, discussions from breakout rooms is not included in the recording.

Given the success of the seminar and workshop, the GSI hopes to continue the conversations and momentum with more events and collaborations. Please keep up to date with GSI events via the websiteTwitterLinkedIn, or join the mailing list by contacting

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