A Strategy for EcoTipping Points Research: Exploring the Ingredients for Replication of Success

Ingredients for Success

EcoTipping Points are levers – catalytic actions that set in motion a turnabout from environmental and social decline to restoration and sustainability. What does it take to achieve a turnabout? Certain ingredients are conspicuous in EcoTipping Point stories.

  • Outside stimulation and facilitation.  An EcoTipping Point story typically begins when people from outside a community stimulate a shared awareness about a problem and the possibilities for doing something about it.
  • Strong local democratic institutions and enduring commitment of local leadership.  Instead of top-down regulation or development plans, the community moves forward with its own decisions, manpower, and financial resources.
  • Coadaption between social system and ecosystem. Social system and ecosystem fit together, functioning as a sustainable whole. Social and environmental gains go hand in hand. At the core is “social commons for environmental commons” – social organization tailored to managing a community’s social and environmental capital.
  • “Letting nature do the work.”Instead of micro-management, EcoTipping Points give nature the opportunity to marshal its self-organizing powers to set restoration in motion, returning degraded ecosystems to health.
  • Transforming waste into resources.  What appears to be “waste” – such as degraded land, abandoned buildings, garbage, sewage, or marginalized people – is mobilized and transformed into valued social or material capital.
  • Rapid results.  Quick “payback” helps to mobilize community commitment. “Success breeds success.” Once positive results begin cascading through social system and ecosystem, normal economic, social, and political processes take it from there.
  • A powerful symbol.  It is common for shared community spaces or stories to represent a positive tip in a way that consolidates community commitment. 
  • Coping with social complexity.  Social complexity can present serious obstacles to success. For example:
    • Competing demands for people’s attention, time, and energy.
    • People threatened by innovation take measures to nullify it.
    • External authority imposes decisions inappropriate for local conditions.
    • Outsiders take over valuable resources after resources are restored.
    • Dependence on the status quo prevents people from breaking away from decline.

Coping with social complexity generally involves strong community and local autonomy.

  • Social and ecological diversity.  Greater diversity provides more choices and opportunities, and therefore better prospects that some of the choices will be good.
  • Social and ecological memory.  Social institutions, knowledge and technology from the past that have “stood the test of time” may offer benefits for the present.
  • Building resilienceThe key is adaptive capacity to recover from disturbances that set decline in motion.

Research Questions

A major objective of EcoTipping Points research is to clarify how the levers that turn decline to restoration function and how they can be created. The findings of the EcoTipping Points Project to date provide a point of departure: hypotheses that require rigorous confirmation (or rejection), amplification, and refinement.

The overriding hypotheses are:

  • Levers that set in motion a change from environmental decline to restoration and sustainability do in fact exist.
  • Reversal of vicious cycles is the central mechanism. Decline can be turned around only if the vicious cycles driving decline are themselves turned around.
  • Although EcoTipping Point success stories are now the exception rather than the rule, success stories can be created on a larger scale by applying a systematic methodology to create the levers.

A key research question is “What does it take to reverse the vicious cycles?” We have seen the same vicious cycles and virtuous cycles appearing in our cases again and again. This can provide a basis for a typology of the feedback loops in the “negative tips” and “positive tips” of our stories, in order to make sense of the tangle of feedback loops encountered in real-world situations. The following are research questions about feedback loops:

  • What are the common kinds of vicious cycles in negative tips?
  • How can interventions (i.e., EcoTipping Point levers) most effectively connect to vicious cycles to turn them around (i.e., set a positive tip in motion)?
  • What kinds of virtuous cycles (in addition to reversal of vicious cycles) arise during positive tips? How are they generated? What are their roles for strengthening positive tips and locking them in?
  • How do the different kinds of feedback loops interconnect and interact to mutually reinforce positive tips?

Additional research questions concern the EcoTipping Point ingredients listed above. The following are examples of research questions for ingredients:

  • What specific forms do the ingredients take in EcoTipping Point success stories?
  • What is the role of each ingredient for connecting to vicious cycles with sufficient force to turn them around? How do different ingredients fit together to achieve this?
  • Which ingredients are essential and which are “supporting” (i.e., contributing to success but not absolutely essential).
  • How do results from the proposed research mesh with existing concepts from relevant academic fields such as human ecology, resilience, community organization (Westley et al. 2007), “diffusion of innovation” (Rogers 2003), social institutions for common property resources (Ostrom 1990), and theory of learning organizations (Senge et al. 2008)?

While the research strategy described below will clarify the form that ingredients take in well-functioning EcoTipping Points, the purpose is not to reinvent well-established practices such as community organization or democratic institutions. The purpose is to put the ingredients into perspective with regard to our specific focus on the lever for reversing environmental and social decline.

Finally, while local community is center stage in our success stories, outside stimulation and facilitation also play a central role, and success replicates to a larger area. What is the interplay of EcoTipping Point dynamics at different scales?

Data Collection and Processing

The case documentation that we have already done has laid a solid foundation for the proposed research. We have extensive anecdotal information for twenty cases, based on observations and interviews during site visits lasting about a week for each case. We can achieve scientifically rigorous and operationally useful answers to our research questions by expanding the sample to include more cases, and most important, systematically documenting each case in greater depth.

Each case has two kinds of sites for documentation:

  • The model. The site where decline was first turned to restoration. This site serves as a model for replication in the surrounding area.
  • Replicates. Sites that had a problem similar to the model site and decided to use the same EcoTipping Point lever.

Model sites

Fieldwork can begin with cases already documented with a site visit (i.e., the “in-depth” cases listed at the top of the Our Stories page. Additional cases can be added for field data collection by selecting cases from among the “capsule tales” listed lower on the same webpage. It is also possible to add cases that are completely new.

The model site is the starting point for documenting each case. Information is collected by means of open-ended, semi-structured interviews, using a checklist of detailed questions that address the hypotheses and research questions. Local translators assist with interviews where necessary. The following information is collected:

  • the story line for the “negative tip” and “positive tip”;
  • the structure of the vicious and virtuous cycles;
  • the nature and role of each “ingredient”;
  • other basic information for the EcoTipping Points conceptual framework.

Although the EcoTipping Points Project already have much of the above information for cases that the Project has documented with site visits, it will be necessary to fill in gaps for every case.

Replication sites

The role of replication sites in the research design of this proposal is based on the fact that the initial success in our stories – the “model” – has been replicated to as many as eight hundred locations, but the degree of success from replicate to replicate has been highly variable. Every replicate is a social/environmental experiment with results that vary from being as successful as the model to failure or somewhere in between.

A major thrust of the research strategy is to learn from what has happened with the replicates. The variation in local conditions among replication sites, and the variation in the way the “ingredients” listed above have been brought to bear for replication, offer an opportunity to examine the role and significance of the ingredients for the levering process over a range of ingredients and a range of results. At the same time, some of the factors that could mask these relationships are more or less constant for a given case: the general environmental and cultural setting (e.g., cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh), the environmental problem (e.g., pesticide trap), the model site (e.g., Punukula), and its lever for the positive tip (e.g., Non-Pesticide Management).

A number of EcoTipping Points in-depth cases can be selected to document replicates. Each selected case can begin with a quick survey of replication sites (or a sub-sample of those sites), to learn the general conditions and degree of success at each site. Once the survey has covered enough replication sites to provide the desired range of conditions underlying success or lack of it, a sample of those sites is selected for intensive documentation, ensuring that the sample covers the full range from success to failure. Documentation can include the same checklist described above for model sites plus additional documentation based on what we have learned from the survey of replication sites.

The large number of replications that exist for many of our success stories provide ample sample sizes for reliable results. Data can be organized in a format that allows the use of multivariate statistical analysis to help answer the research questions. Learning from the replication in different cases – with different geographical and social conditions, different negative tips (i.e., environmental problems), and different positive tips (i.e., EcoTipping Point models) – will clarify how consistent the results are over a broad range of conditions.

Examples of results from the first stage of this research – a reconnaissance of replicating success from model sites to other locations:


  • Gerald Marten. 2001. Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development, Earthscan Publications. See the entire book online
  • Elinor Ostrom. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press.
  • Everett Rogers. 2003. Diffusion of Innovations (Fifth edition). Free Press.
  • Peter Senge, Bryan Smith, Sara Schley, Joe Laur & Nina Kruschwitz. 2008. The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. US Green Building Council.
  • Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman & Michael Quinn Patton. 2007. Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed. Vintage Canada.

Back to top