Mapping my understanding of systems mapping [verb] and systems maps [noun]

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For probably the first time in the course since its start, the focus for a fortnight was on something I had some experience in before (or so I thought) – Networks and Systems.

I definitely felt as though I was relearning what was meant by systems mapping in the context of our studies at the 3A Institute. Some parts were familiar – boundaries, interrelations, feedback loops etc. And some of the past fortnight has been a different lens on the topic. I’ve really needed to try my best to put my previous experiences aside and learn anew. Some forming thoughts are below (this is work in progress as things percolate).

Re-remembering how my experiences to date that have shaped my views of systems change and systems mapping

Systems change and systems mapping is not foreign to me. Indeed a large part of my training as an Acumen Fellow was firmly rooted in thinking in systems and translating that into action as part of our adaptive leadership training.

I found myself sharing perspectives in our discussions this fortnight that resembled my learnings from back in 2015-2016:

Previously, every conversation I have been involved in related to systems change has begun from a premise like this: “The system is broken… therefore we need to fix it by doing [xyz]”.

The premise posited since arriving at Acumen, however, has been the complete opposite: that the system ain’t broke! — The system is perfectly aligned to the interests of stakeholders incentivised within the system, which makes it all the more difficult for these stakeholders (myself often included) to change their inner beliefs and attitudes in order to move the system to a new (and potentially less personally incentivised) equilibrium. (Rest of blogpost can be found here).

Since then, a lot of my work as a consultant has been rooted in systems thinking and systems change. Particularly while working at PwC’s Indigenous Consulting and in conjunction with the amazing team at Collaboration For Impact.

This work has been connected to a Collective Impact view on Systems change which would define systems change as “shifting the conditions that are holding the problem in place.”. And has been quite focused on practitioner-based models of enacting and designing for systems change (see Figure below).

Kania et al (2018). ‘Waters of Systems Change”

The 3A Institute approach took a different way in to exploring systems thinking and systems maps.

Expanding my views on systems mapping and systems change – 3AI approach

In true 3AI style, we explored systems from many different angles. In just one three hour session, we had discussed the Apollo mission, the history of the internet and received a crash course in systems engineering from the Engineering school at ANU.

The visual representations of systems that we use is really fascinating to me. See Figure below for an example that was shared with us over the past fortnight.

Slide from a crash course in systems engineering by Assoc Prof Jochen Trumpf

This was coupled with an interesting resource list (as usual) which included:

Nora Bateson (2015) An ecology of mind: A daughter’s portrait of Gregory Bateson. Film. [We will watch thistogether in the team read session]

Donella Meadows (2015) Thinking in systems: A primer. Introduction and Chapter 1. Pp 1-34. Book.

Susan Leigh Star (2010) This is not a boundary object: reflections on the origin of a concept. Science, Technologyand Human Values 35(5): 601-617. Paper.

Antonio de Luca & Sasha Portis (2019) New York’s subway map like you’ve never seen it before. NY Times.Interactive graphics.

Tyson Yunkaporta (2019) Sand talk: How Indigenous thinking can save the world. Chapter 9: DisplacedApostrophes. Pp 171-188. Book chapter.

In the tutorial we discussed the Apollo mission from the perspective of Yunkaporta which was a great way of seeing systems from different perspectives. The definition below from Meadows, also proved to be handy as we explored what a system really is:

The fortnight also involved a session with ANU Vice Chancellor and Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt on the history of astronomy and exploring the solar system as a system, which quickly morphed into us finding our own quasars(!) with Christian Wolf using data from the ANU’s SkyMapper Southern Sky Survey.

In addition, we indulged in a session looking at COVID-19 from a systems perspective with Prof Genevieve Bell and futurist Mark Pesce. Intriguing applications of the systems lens and interesting discussions on the role of how we see time in a moment of a pandemic and whether we can apply an anthropological framing around rituals and rites of passage to the COVID-19 crisis.

Perhaps one of the most illuminating moments for me of the various sessions was when a distinction was made between ‘systems mapping’ – the verb / an act of analysis – and ‘a systems map’ – the noun / an act of representation and communication. I think this is again different from ‘systems change’ which is coming from a place of design, intent and implementation – in other words, framing in terms of the action that you do as a result of the mapping and map. Although, on face value, these are semantics, I think they highlight the different perspectives or ‘ways in’ and has gone part of the way of putting some pieces together.

Needless to say, mind has been positively expanded (and exploded) as I begin to work out how these new views and my own previous ones merge and mesh into a new perspective that I take going forward.

PS – in the middle of all of this, we also managed to WOW eachother with demos of our individual maker projects (see twitter summary of these below).

For further insights into the 3AI Master of Applied Cybernetics course, take a look at the Institute’s Medium article here.