Learning impact

The Nature of the Complexity of the Impact

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Impact is often considered as something so complex and intangible that “you should not even try to figure it out”. We do not agree. Impact is complex. But it becomes traceable, tangible and predictable when you know where to look and what to note.

And today we will outline major factors of impact complexity and approaches to describe and communicate each of them. We realize that there are many other difficulties with impact such as tracing, measuring, tracking, interpreting, and so on. And today we are focusing on understanding, describing and discussing impact effects.

So here are the major factors of impact complexity:

  1. There are intermediate events and effects between original actions and consequences which we would qualify as impact.
  2. Usually there are several causes which commit to some event/effect to happen, and there are several consequences from any of events/effects.
  3. Much time can pass before original actions will lead to an impact, which we can notice.
  4. Impact can manifest itself quite far from the place where original actions were performed. 
  5. And completely different people may be witnesses of it. So they will likely evaluate those impacts differently.
  6. A critical amount of effect must accumulate before we see significant qualitative changes. For society and nature, impact works on scale, but most often we observe only isolated cases.

And every time we analyze real-world impact effects, we see a combination of these factors.

Now we wish to illustrate how they work. We still have that Bad factory example from our Impact in a nutshell article with awful working conditions and products which harms kids' health. But let’s imagine something more unobvious for this exercise.

Example: Microplastics. We produce and use many types of plastic. Many plastic items end up in the environment by accident everywhere or systematically in areas with recycling technologies less developed. In nature, plastics degrade often over hundreds if not thousands of years, so rather it breaks into small pieces and the powder. But still it does not dissolve. These are still pieces of solid plastic. With water and wind they fall into water streams, rivers and lakes, seas and oceans, fields and mountains. And then are ingested by animals. Many animals get ill or die of that. Others survive and appear on peoples’ tables. The circle closes. We eat, drink and inhale microplastic and our health is deteriorating.

Now, let’s apply our tools of system thinking about impact to decompose this description of the complex microplastics problem and see it through our numbered factors:

1. Intermediation. We throw plastic bags, bottles and other things out into nature or just forget them somewhere during outdoor activities.
→ Winds and animals carry them far away.
→ They burn out in the sun and become brittle, time passes by.
→ They rub and scratch on stones and sand, turn into small debris and plastic powder, more time passes.
→ These little pieces and tiny grains fly with wind and flow with water.
→ Animals ingest them in many ways, with water, food or by licking while cleaning themselves.
→ They get ill or die, or come to the tables where people eat them together with microplastic.

Such a journey is quite difficult to trace. 7 steps, transformation from familiar objects to plastic grains and powder. It is not obvious.

2. Multitude of causes and effects. There is no single place of origin for all such microplastic. As well as there is no single way or principle of how these microplastics appear. Many sources, many processes and factors.

So when we find some such substance in nature, it may be soot from pipes, worn shoe soles or car tires, fragments of artificial turf, dust from vacuum cleaners, particles of cosmetics, clothes, packaging and many other things.

3. Time gap. We use plastic for a long time, and such items can be quite durable. So it takes years and decades for them to fall apart and become dangerous in the form of microplastic. We suffer from plastic, most of which was used by our grandparents or so.

Even if it is something which becomes micro- and nano-sized quite quickly, like worn car tires, it takes time to pass the full circle through nature to get into our own bodies and start to disturb us.

4. Space gap. As we can see in previous paragraphs, microplastics take a long way before becoming dangerous pieces and particles.

5. Subjectivity. Potential harm of microplastic is still being studied and discussed and can be not obvious for many. The term "microplastics" was introduced in 2004 by Professor Richard Thompson. Like it was with many other issues, it takes time to turn from a relatively new term into a well-known and recognized problem. So today, many can take this as a fabrication, not consider it harmful, and mock those who give it special attention. Or just overlook and ignore it.

6. Accumulation. Definitely, it’s difficult to measure vanishingly small concentrations of plastic particles wherever they are: rivers, oceans, soils. So for a significant period of time we were able to dump limitless amounts of plastic with no visible consequences. We also remember, it needs decades to turn to those dangerous grains and powder.

But when it became traceable and measurable, it meant that a huge amount of these dangerous substances had already accumulated in nature. In 2014, 10 years after the first mention, it was estimated that there are between 15 and 51 trillion individual pieces of microplastic in the world's oceans, which was estimated to weigh between 93,000 and 236,000 metric tons.

Now we understand why it may be so difficult to deal with impact. Each individual factor can complicate a measurement and tracing. While some combinations of them may make impact analysis look close to impossible.

Tradition to describe impact with words makes it even more difficult to work with complex processes.

So as a general approach we propose to use graphical schemes which we call impact-graphs or impact-schemes. You may see them in our Impact Chains article. In the end of that article we placed a text version of the graph to let you easily compare these two approaches: impact-graphs and text descriptions.

Now let’s get back to the factors of complexity and see briefly how impact-graphs help to deal with them. We clearly realize that we are speaking now only about describing of impact, and there many other problems

  1. Intermediation. On a graph we can mark up and trace chains of effects which lead from original actions through immediate changes to long-term shifts.
  2. Multitude of causes and effects. Here is the one of the strongest sides of impact-graphs, because commitments of different factors and multiple consequences become literally obvious on such schemes. We can mark them with different colors, boldness, line styles to see how different causes and effects interact.
  3. Time gap. Since we can describe not only rectangles but also arrows in different ways, we can use them to include information about time periods between different events. And then visually add these numbers to calculate the time between the events we need.
  4. Space gap. If we can discover any special space distribution features and patterns, an impact scheme is also very useful to depict them.
  5. Subjectivity. Unlike long texts, schemes are much more convenient to multilateral and public discussions. Rectangles and arrows are clear even to poorly educated people, so they are a perfect object for spreading the knowledge of impact and negotiating with people with very different points of view.
  6. Accumulation. We have noted that microplastics are concentrated in water reservoirs and soils. We know great garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean for example. So we can mark such places up and calculate the concentration of plastic particles when ingesting by animals becomes probable. Placing such areas of concentration and accumulation to a scheme helps to trace and evaluate critical values and build prediction models for impact.

So let’s draft a simplified version of an impact-graph of the microplastics problem.

Working with this graph to add more details to squares and arrows will lead us to a simple representation of the complex microplastics problem. Which is much more convenient to discuss than a heap of long articles.

So now we see what makes debates around impact so difficult—it has natural complexity which can be really confusing. Armed with knowledge of the main factors, we can effectively analyze, describe and discuss impact. And in addition to those system thinking tools we propose impact-graphs as a method of visualization to make this approach convenient and easy to apply.
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