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Tipping Points


In popular terms, 'tipping point' refers to a critical point in time when everything changes at once and has been ascribed to everything from global financial crises, to impending environmental disasters. As a metaphor, it was first used in sociology in 1958 to describe the critical threshold when white people would leave an increasingly black-dominated community. Since then, it has been used to describe rapid technological change, the onset of rapid product adoption and similar transformations in both physical and socioeconomic systems. It was further popularised in 2000 by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference. Gladwell’s ideas stretch the definition of a tipping point into a particular branch of mathematics, namely a subset of complexity theory called bifurcation analysis. In mathematics, a bifurcation is a point at which small changes start to grow rapidly, through positive feedbacks. The latter is applied to explore whether or not systems can evolve into periods of rapid change as a result of the internal dynamics of the system itself. Systems are analysed, using bifurcation analysis, to see if they can display such behaviour. If natural or social systems do bifurcate, the term 'tipping point' may not only be a metaphor, but suggest a behaviour that we can detect and possibly predict. It might even have agency, if use of the term affects the very behaviour it sets out to describe.

The Tipping Points project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, provides the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience (IHRR) with an opportunity to provide a fresh and original exploration of a term increasingly used to describe the world in which we live. The relevance of understanding how tipping points occur could not come at a better time, as countries recover from near or complete financial collapse and as ecological devastation due to climate change continues to grow in scale. If there are examples of systems that tip, then it will require a fundamentally different approach to the way in which we live.