Five Levers of Social Change

Practical Advice Series: Five basic “levers,” or strategies, to help businesses or nonprofits achieve social change.

This is the last in a series on the five drivers of social change. Here, we look at the role of disruptive technology.

In recent years, few advances have done more to spur the process of social change than the development of new technologies. But what is perhaps most fascinating about these advances is that even the smallest evolution can have lasting effects. Take, for example, the extraordinary ability of digital technology to connect individuals and help them share information.

In San Francisco, the fire department came up with a brilliant web application that is literally saving lives. The Local Lifesavers App is designed to alert CPR-certified technicians when there’s a local emergency. The technology works by tracking the location of each technician via their smartphone’s GPS; when an operator/dispatcher logs a 911 call, nearby people who know CPR and are part of the program receive the exact location of the emergency, as well as the location of nearby defibrillators. The technology allows people with basic emergency training to respond quickly—even before an EMT team arrives—and when seconds count, this app can make all the difference.

New Yorkers will be familiar with another example: the MTA App Quest. This government-funded program challenges app developers to improve the experience of the 8.5 million New Yorkers who rely on public transit daily. The recent grand prize winner, Embark, is an interactive program that provides users with directions, as well as a step-by-step guide (based on user preferences) that details train schedules and delays, uses GPS mapping, and identifies places to stop for coffee on the way—all accessible underground.

Sometimes these sorts of information-sharing advances can connect people who live thousands of miles apart but who have similar needs, interests, or priorities. One of the more transformative recent examples of this is the It Gets Better Project, started by advice columnist and activist Dan Savage. During the summer and fall of 2010, a number of teenagers who had been targets of homophobic bullying committed suicide. Savage saw an urgent need to bring attention to the growing bullying epidemic directed at gay and lesbian teens. He created a video where he and his partner, Terry, talked about their own terrifying experience of being bullied as children—and more importantly, how they were able to move beyond on and discover that their lives would in fact get better. Not long afterward, celebrities, politicians, and ordinary citizens began making their own videos, describing their own experiences, and encouraging others to not give up hope about the future.

Savage’s effort put a spotlight on an issue that was often quietly acknowledged but rarely discussed in public—and it’s precisely this sort of attention that can foster larger social changes. Savage relied on established technology—YouTube, Facebook, and other social media sites—to speak directly to young people. As he noted in an interview right after launching the project, “High schools don’t bring me in, and those are the ages that young gay people are committing suicide. Because of technology, we don’t need to wait for an invitation anymore to speak to these kids. We can speak to them directly.”

Conclusion: Putting the Five Levers to Work

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Dan and Chip Heath suggest that the best way to create change is to shape the path—remove ambiguity so that people can take action and feel confident that their efforts will yield results.


The “five levers for social change” I’ve laid out in this series can help shape the path for any individual, organization, or government to create change. It clearly lays out the only five strategies that we at Taproot know work.

Here’s a framework for getting started:

First, define the desired change you want to make in the community, nation, or world, whether it’s increasing the percentage of K-12 students with access to healthy school lunches, decreasing the smoking rate in New York City, cutting the response rate for emergency services in San Francisco, or decreasing suicide rates for gay teens.

Second, understand the ecosystem of the issue. Is the issue framed in an actionable way for the community? Are there existing bright spots that you can use as models? Does the public support the change? What role do the government and companies play supporting the status quo or supporting change? Is there a potential technology that could shift the understanding of what is possible?

The third step is to identify which of the levers you need to address the issues, given what you understand of the ecosystem. Most issues require multiple levers and in some cases, you will need to use all five.

Next, identify the partners you need to create the change (local government, philanthropy, community groups, business, etc.). Who do you need to engage to activate each lever? How do you bring them all to the table behind your vision?

Then get started and begin to pull the levers—applying pressure while exercising a great deal of humility and patience. Social change is hard to accomplish. Focus your efforts in the right areas and make the greatest possible use of your energy.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.