Three principles for co-designing intervention strategies

By David Lam

David Lam (biography)

What processes are involved when researchers and local actors co-design context-specific intervention strategies? This ‘how to’ knowledge is outlined in the three principles described below. Local actors can include non-governmental organisations, local leaders, community groups and individual activists.

Principle 1. Explore existing and envisioned initiatives fostering change towards the desired future 

This has 3 key steps:

  1. Identifying existing initiatives and knowledge working towards the desired future
  2. Identifying who is involved and leading different existing initiatives
  3. Analysing how existing and possible future initiatives from local actors contribute to changing the state of system elements that need to change for reaching the desired vision or up to an intermediate state.

Key issues are:

  • Designing durable and effective intervention strategies that build on existing momentum and acknowledge existing efforts and experiences in a given place. Existing initiatives working in the desired direction create a solid starting point for possible interventions. Where existing initiatives and local knowledge align with the envisioned transformation, drawing on these initiatives and knowledge can greatly improve take-off and successful implementation of any new interventions.
  • Building on existing initiatives also acknowledges that it is the people living and engaging in the concrete context who will be responsible for fostering the transformation process in the long run.

Principle 2. Frame the intervention strategy to bridge the gap between the present state and desired future state(s), building on, strengthening and complementing existing initiatives

This has two key steps:

  1. Analysing which measures are missing to change neglected system elements of the vision (eg for sustainability)
  2. Framing the intervention strategy in a way that bridges the gap between the present state and desired future state(s).

Key issues are:

  • Identifying measures that could address system elements of the desired vision that are currently not (sufficiently) addressed by existing and envisioned initiatives.
  • Framing the intervention strategy to take into account the lifetime of existing and envisioned initiatives during which they influence system elements. In this way, the intervention strategy takes into account possible starting points of envisioned future initiatives, their rhythms including peak times of activities as well as times of inactivity and end points of existing as well as envisioned initiatives. Consequently, the intervention strategy will build on and strengthen ongoing initiatives from local actors. This could include various types of amplifying and scaling, such as replicating initiatives to other places to reach more people, or scaling up to change policies and rules.
  • Co-designing new initiatives which complement existing initiatives, specifically focusing on system elements that are currently not (sufficiently) addressed by existing initiatives.

Principle 3. Identify drivers, barriers and potential leverage points for how to accelerate progress towards the desired vision

This has two key steps:

  1. Relying on the experience and knowledge of identified local actors of change in their present and envisioned efforts to attain the desired vision
  2. Drawing out envisioned drivers, barriers and potential leverage points for the codesigned intervention strategy.

Key issues are:

  • Managing drivers for the co-designed intervention strategy, while recognising places to intervene to overcome barriers is key to effectively moving in the desired direction.
  • Drivers of change push and protect initiatives by, for instance, supporting or accelerating an emerging favourable broader societal context or providing protective space for these initiatives to develop, act and flourish.
  • Barriers hinder change, can create path dependency and could lead to lock-in situations if responses fail to address feedbacks in systems.
  • Leverage points are places to intervene in a system where a small shift can lead to fundamental changes in the system as a whole and thus help to overcome barriers and identify the sub systems, issues, areas, times, places and sectors for effective interventions.
  • For developing an effective and viable strategy it is useful to differentiate between shallow leverage points which are tangible, but rather weak in fostering change such as parameters or feedbacks, and deep leverage points which are less obvious, but more powerful such as the design of the system, or its intent.


These three principles facilitate the process of co-designing modular, organic and bottom up intervention strategies. They can be used in conjunction with top-down approaches. When top-down approaches are lacking, the principles can help empower local actors by building social capital and capacity; strengthening legitimacy, ownership and accountability for the intervention strategy; and mobilising networks of change agents.

What are your experiences with intervention strategies that integrate the work and knowledge from local actors? The idea of reflecting on drivers and barriers with a leverage points perspective is quite new. What are your thoughts on this?

To find out more:

Lam, D. P. M., Horcea-Milcu, A. I., Fischer, J., Peukert, D. and Lang, D. J. (2019). Three principles for co-designing sustainability intervention strategies: Experiences from Southern Transylvania. Ambio. (Online) (Open access):

Biography: David P. M. Lam is a PhD candidate at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany where he worked in the research project Leverage Points for Sustainability Transformation. Until recently he was a visiting guest researcher at Universidad Nacional Autonóma de México (UNAM) in Morelia, Mexico. His research focuses on (1) amplification processes to scale the impact of local initiatives that foster sustainability transformations, and (2) the role of different knowledge systems in sustainability transformations research, such as the ones pertaining to indigenous peoples and local communities.

6 thoughts on “Three principles for co-designing intervention strategies”

  1. Thanks so much for the blog post. Your point about small shifts possibly leading to fundamental changes in the system as a whole is well taken. It can often feel challenging to involve local actors in co-design efforts focused on systems transformation from the outset. There is also great value in authentically engaging local actors in manageable small shifts where quick wins can be realized and lead to greater trust and credibility among all actors – in service to potentially more commitment for transformational changes later.

    • Dear Allison, I totally agree with your point. Engaging local actors in manageable small shifts creates also more capacites and might inspire other people to do similiar good things. Change is rarely accomplished in big steps, but often in small emergent steps. That is at least how I see it. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Wonderful, David. I am particularly appreciative of point 1, to see what’s already happening…I get so frustrated by people thinking that they’ve got to start something new, rather than understand there’s almost always something already happening, and it’s a question of augmenting and weaving together.

    • Thank you! I see this problem often that people think they need to start from zero. However, there is so much positive going on already in lots of communities and cities on which others can build on. Especially when people try to change something somewhere. They think they need only novel and innovative ideas. However, those often exist already in the places.

  3. Very interesting point the weak and strong local leverage identified points in community systems.However in political community situations it is very hard to identify!

    • Dear Geitza, interesting point. I am not familiar with political community situations. But maybe it is worth thinking about leverage points in this context.


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