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We are a multidisciplinary innovation studio working with diverse partners to understand sustainability challenges and identify holistic, resilient solutions, and we are committed to training the next generation of leaders.

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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What does a systems map even mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

If you have ever partnered with Foresight, you know that one of the first steps we take on a project is to create a “systems map” (or diagram) to better understand and make explicit the key elements, root causes, feedback loops, and forces that shape the system we are working on. But what does a systems map even mean?

As we have previously touched on, systems thinking is a (1) mindset, (2) tool, and (3) process that is reserved for complex problems. When linear approaches are useless in addressing issues that involve multiple moving, interconnected, and evolving elements (like climate change or homelessness), a systems thinking approach is necessary. 

  1. Mindset: Seek root causes and broader context from multiple, diverse perspectives.
  2. Tool: Map the systems to make explicit the interconnected elements of a system. 
  3. Process: Bring stakeholders together to align perspectives and co-create a shared action plan.

A critical first step in systems thinking is visualization—the pen-on-paper act of spelling out all the elements of a system and the relationships between them. Ideally produced with stakeholders within the system, this map can reveal the forces that maintain the status quo, as well as key pain and opportunity points for strategic interventions to move the system closer to optimization. We believe that you must take the time to “see” the system before you can change it. 

Systems Map created by Brown University's Social Innovation Students. 

Systems Map created by Brown University's Social Innovation Students. 

While there are many systems map typologies, they all generally aim to visually communicate the system elements and interconnections between them. More specifically, the goals of mapping a system are to:

  • Understand the dynamics of a system, including interactions between elements.
  • Present a neutral view of system that incorporates multiple perspectives.
  • Convey multiple dimensions and describe how the system behaves over time.
  • Make relationships, forces, and feedback loops explicit.
  • Engage stakeholders from within the system in an exercise to better understand it. 
  • Reveal potential intervention points for change.

Traditional systems maps include causal loop diagrams, behavior over time charts, and stock and flows. But, as they are applied to a wider variety of contexts, systems maps can take many forms, from concept maps to giga maps. There is active discourse among systemic design practitioners about how to make these maps more accessible, compelling, informative, and insightful. 

While there may be room for improvement in their communicative function, the act of mapping the system with diverse stakeholders in the room is invaluable in its ability to literally get everyone on the same page about how a complex system works. Understanding is the first step in creating meaningful change.