What IS Social System Mapping?

A Social System Map is an Online, Interactive, Visual Language

It's a tool designed to:

      • Help build critical mass and momentum behind tipping points;
      • Help people within social eco-systems SEE and NAVIGATE COMPLEXITY;
      • Amplify and accelerate the system-change efforts of people who are engaged in movements and transformation networks;
      • Help network members collaborate more effectively across differences; surface and leverage the dynamic creative tensions inherent within multi-perspective networks, and navigate wisely within self-organizing human systems;
      • Increase adaptivity, resilience and (re)generativity in social eco-systems.

It has overlaps and resonances with all of these kinds of maps:

A classic cause and effect, stocks and flows

System Map

A classic

Social Network Analysis (SNA)


Asset Map


Power Analysis Map


Stakeholder Map

In fact, it's a mash-up of all of those.

But it's also





A Social System Map Grows Outward From The People

Because the smallest - and yet most powerful - unit of social transformation exists in the dynamics between people, we start our mapping with people (and/or organizations, which are just collectives of people) in a dynamic Social Network Analysis (SNA) - to visualize and understand the connections among the network's ACTUAL ACTORS. People in a specific context, with a specific purpose. And unlike with an SNA, which is a snapshot of a single moment, a Social System Map tracks changes to the network structure over time.


But beyond pure network structure, we're also interested in how the different social dimensions of the network (such as identity, experience, stakeholder perspective, roles, etc. - as defined by the people in the network) are reflected in the network's patterns, to help understand the how those dynamics impact the network. We ask about and visualize whatever social differences in the network make meaningful and useful distinctions related to the network's goals.


On top of that multidimensional SNA, we layer in an Asset Map that visually represents the abundance within the community as well as identifies areas of individual or collective need. This is often called the 'offers and asks' layer. It helps network actors identify areas where our gifts can make the most difference.


From there, we include actions taking place in the network - who is working on what, what goals or challenges are they addressing, what strategies are they using, what motivations are driving their energy.


And on top of that, we connect up the network's actions with the forces in the system that the network is trying to transform.


But these are conceptual layers, not sequential layers. In practice, these dimensions will tend to come together - not as layers but as clusters, some all together in the beginning, and others later on as insights grow.


As a Mash-Up, as a Learning Tool, and as a Collective Process - A Social System Map Behaves Differently Than Any of the Above Maps.

The more collaborative and crowd-sourced the Social System Mapping process is, the more relevant it becomes to the people on the ground, the greater the learning about systems and complexity among network members, and the more energy and agency can be liberated throughout the whole field.


But this 'ground-up' and evolving dynamic, combined with the complexity inherent in mashing all these dimensions together means that the expectations we'd normally to bring to each of those types of maps above tend to constrain our thinking when it comes to Social System Mapping.


With Social System Mapping we loosen the boundaries of what we're doing and how we do it. We're looking less for an expert-driven conclusive analysis and more for an iterative, collective, emergent synthesis that leads to next-wise-steps at multiple scales. It's not a precise definition of a single moment. It's a fuzzy approximation of complex dynamics - meant to increase our our collective capacity to manage within the actual complexity in the real world.


When explaining the difference between a Social System Map and any of the more clearly-defined and narrowly-focused mapping methods above, we're reminded of the Wave-Particle Duality, which tells that the tools used to measure light determine whether we see it as a particle or a wave. A classic Social Network Analysis resonates with 'particle' in this metaphor, and a Social System Map resonates with 'wave'. We're looking at the same thing, but it's differently-knowable because we're using different tools.

Ben Roberts
"We are just beginning to explore ways that the added capacity to map organizations and other types of collective initiatives as a distinct element class can create an even more powerful tool for navigating the complexity of a “network of networks” space. We are also excited about ways the map can be used to identify opportunities for generative dialogue and for moving resources. And we are having a lot of fun using sumApp in creative and playful ways, e.g. by taking random walks through the map to find answers to general questions posed by a group--a kind of fortune telling that showcases the richness of the information that people are providing."
Now What?! Lead Convener and Host
Pablo Vidueira
"The beauty of a Social System Map is that it's the epitome of a Developmental Evaluation tool. It serves the purpose of the intervention, and at the same time, it's an evaluation tool itself. So you're not adding anything on top of the process to evaluate what was going on. Eventually we can just look back and see how the network evolved."
Blue Marble Evaluator | Global Alliance for the Future of Food
Glenn Page
The Social Systems Map developed by Greater than the Sum is the most essential tool we have to “see" ourselves. We are a very diverse group that needed a process that enabled us to see ourselves as a whole, but also across 13 workstreams. Thanks to Christine and Tim, we can now see the evolution of the network over time, focus on the implications of our principles and most critically how each of us add agency to the wider group.

This group is obsessed with seeing, connecting and accelerating large scale systems change and the Social System Map is something we are finding increasingly useful in understanding strategies for how change plays out in relation to transforming existing dominant systems, seeing the dynamics of interactions and, ultimately, pathways for change.

We want to break down remarkably strong structures and processes before building new ones and the social systems map holds significant potential to better see and understand those structures. Currently, our insights from the Social Systems map have practical implications in the way change-makers understand our positions in networks and can help inspire ideas such as when to do what and where. Thanks to the social systems map - we now have key insights in our network configurations, that help us to see system dynamics such as adjacent possibles, new attractors, and how we are engaging in network bricolage. It is perhaps the most powerful tool in our toolbox!
Network convener of the Transformations Systems Mapping & Analysis Working Group
Lisa Negstad
As I started working in network development, I was grateful to discover Social System Mapping. It’s a powerful way to visualize your network. When embedded into the deeper work of your community or network, it helps your collaborative to see itself more clearly, think differently together, and attune to what is needed as the network develops.
Principal at Negstad Consulting
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