The Action Scales Model: A Conceptual Tool to Identify Key Points for Action within Complex Adaptive Systems

James D Nobles*, Duncan Radley, Oliver Mytton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review


Background: Systems thinking is integral to working effectively within complex systems, such as those which drive the current population levels of overweight and obesity. It is increasingly recognised that a systems approach - which corrals public, private, voluntary and community sector organisations to make their actions and efforts coherent - is necessary to address the complex drivers of obesity. Identifying, implementing and evaluating actions within complex adaptive systems is challenging, and may differ from previous approaches used in public health.

Methods: We developed the Action Scales Model (ASM) as a simple tool to help policymakers and practitioners work within complex adaptive systems to address obesity, and to help evaluators conceptualise, identify and appraise actions within such a system. The model was developed as part of the Public Health England Whole Systems Obesity programme. It aligns with, and expands upon, previous models such as the Intervention Level Framework, the Iceberg Model, and Donella Meadows’ 12 places to intervene within a system.

Results: The ASM identifies four levels (synonymous with leverage points) to intervene within a system, with deeper levels providing greater potential for changing how the system functions. Levels include events, structures, goals, and beliefs. The ASM encourages people to think differently about the systems that they work within and to identify new and potentially more impactful opportunities to leverage change.

Discussion: In this paper, we: 1) describe the rationale for the ASM; 2) present the ASM and its component parts; 3) discuss the practical utility of the ASM; 4) illustrate how stakeholders can use the ASM to evaluate actions within systems; and 5) critique the ASM alongside other available models. Whilst we use the population prevalence of obesity as an outcome of a complex adaptive system, the ASM and the associated principles can be applied to other issues.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPerspectives in Public Health
Publication statusSubmitted - 31 Jul 2020

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