The Social System Mapping Vision

Social System Mapping is ultimately about systemic transformation. It’s about supporting a shift that is becoming manifest in the world – from systems of dominance, extraction, and exploitation to systems of connection, reverence and re-generation. It exists in service to a global movement working to create the conditions that will enable systemic transformation at multiple and reinforcing scales – from visceral and intimate to socially, politically and geographically wide and deep.

The foundational structure for this movement is strong networks of change agents.

Networks are the most ubiquitous and natural of structures, so effecting change through networks should come naturally. But in fact – humans doing aligned work in large numbers across scales and differences and distances (i.e. working in networks) is challenging for a variety of reasons. Most of which stem from two mental models that are fundamental to modern western cultures:

  • The ‘Separate Self’ – the nearly-ubiquitous subconscious sense of human selves as separate from one another and everything else. Generative change in human systems happens at the speed of trust – and separate selves are deeply distrustful.
  • A mechanistic, linear, formal-logic, top-down understanding of how things work and how things change. The systems we want to change are Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), and mechanistic change models fail miserably when applied to a CAS.

Social System Mapping was designed to help shift those two fundamental mental models by helping to generate three new conditions within the context of change- or transformation-networks.

  • Stronger, more mutually-supportive, and more strategic relationships – (i.e. shifting the Separate Self model to a healthily-boundary’d, inter-being self):
    • Understanding and developing relationships – which includes not just helping more people ‘be connected’, but helping them be strategic and healthy about connections, as well as understanding and grappling with the dynamics of power and privilege and trauma and history that impact our relationships and our ability to connect authentically, so that we’re also generating conditions for trust and love to emerge.
  • An on-the-ground, actionable, shared understanding of how change actually happens in a CAS, and an ever-increasing collective capacity to work wisely within the constantly-shifting complexity facing us.
  • Lenses that help the whole network be able to see the rest of the network in all it’s glorious multi-dimensionality. A tool to support the network in recognizing itself as a complex adaptive system and to enable members to coordinate and cooperate in ways that nurture not only each part, but that nurture the health of the whole. Tools that help us sense into and make sense of the parts, the whole, and the greater whole.

Social System Mapping at its best can help support relationship-building as well as understanding the deeper relational structures making up the network. It can be a pedagogic tool for learning about complex adaptive systems in a context that is relevant, meaningful and actionable to members of a network. And it can be that lens that enables the system to see itself. It can enable greater awareness of the social system mapped, and greater wisdom about needs and opportunities at all scales. And it can both support and reflect more effective action taken by system actors in all the scales and domains in which they pursue the network’s purposes.

It’s about leveraging visual thinking tools and a new visual language to combine a worldview of justice, equity, diversity and belonging with data-driven systems and complexity methodologies in ways that help both of those impulses move their work more fully into that re-generative system shift we’re all seeking.


All of this is mostly aspirational – nonetheless:

If ever there was a time for boldness, it is now. If we’re going to work for transformation, why not use every tool at our disposal that leverages our efforts?


Acknowledging the ethical implications of mapping

For many people in many contexts, maps have long been tools of oppression. Maps are powerful, and never truly neutral.

  • Every map is an ontological assertion, staking a representational claim to and authority over some level of reality.
  • Every map privileges some things and excludes many things. This privileging and exclusion shapes perception and controls narratives.
  • A preponderance of maps have historically been intended and used for domination, exploitation, extraction.
  • A preponderance of maps have historically justified and empowered all manner of horror.

Social System Mapping aims to redress that abusive use of maps. What gives maps their power is their ability to reflect, amplify, and impose the beliefs of the human-created systems they emerged within. Which means that if we want to make maps that support transformation, we have to transform the beliefs that drive our making of them. And that requires a radical disruption of this seemingly innocent activity. Starting with ourselves.

As Social System Mappers we recognize that impact starts with us.

Knowing that who we are and how we show up impacts everything around us, including the maps we create, we strive to practice – to the best of our ability in any given moment – living into the shift that Social System Mapping was developed to support.

Thus we’re never mapping in isolation from any/many of these interconnected practices:

  • Re-connecting humanity with our Mother Earth and all beings
  • Decolonization (both literal and metaphorical)
  • Network weaving and community building
  • Ecological healing and regeneration.
  • Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Justice and Belonging.
  • Trauma-informed convening and relational healing.
  • Liberatory/participatory convening processes.
  • Advancing our understanding of systems and our capacity for dealing with complexity – such as Adaptive Action, Pattern Spotting and SenseMaking.
  • Evolving consciousness.
  • More equitable and generative economic models and practices.
  • Working to resolve intentional and/or unconscious patterns related to dominance, colonization, all forms of supremacy, extraction, exploitation – fractal-ly – from the intimate scale of one-on-one interactions, zoomed all the way out to global systems.
  • Supporting, exploring, and helping to develop wiser forms of governance, deep democracy, power-sharing, and subsidiarity.

These practices necessarily inform our mapping intentions, processes, communications, implementation, embedding/engagement, and ongoing sense-making.

Weaving them together strengthens the relationship between social/environmental movement approaches and systems-thinking/complexity approaches that we believe is so crucial to transformation.

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