Continuing our series of posts by our University of Oxford students attending the Skoll World Forum, this piece is by Meagan Johnson, an MBA student at the University of Oxford.
Disruption, the theme of the 10th anniversary of the Skoll World Forum, can manifest itself differently and occur across many different ecosystems, but the common outcome is that the larger system or paradigm that we are all apart of, and accept as true, becomes untrue in some way, shape, or form. If we are to take the view that no system is true, but rather that we are a part of a flow, we should then be able to choose a system that will nurture innovation and help to achieve a higher purpose. How do we disrupt a system in order to move in this direction?
Richard Jefferson, innovation systems strategist and founder of Cambia, uses the history of cartography as an example of how to dismantle this dilemma. When Portuguese maps were published in 1596, they served in de-risking the system of trade by becoming a global public good rather than private and this led to a massive investment in seafaring and mapping technologies that changed the system altogether. Today, we are increasingly concerned with the trade of ideas and innovations rather than physical goods, but the system has never been so complex and interconnected. Small disruptions can create large shocks and a cascade of unintended consequences if the wrong levers are pulled. Where can we, as ‘changemakers’, intervene in the system? What are the right levers to pull?
Marshall Clemens, Principal at Idiagram and guest speaker at the Forum’s session on “Mapping Systems: A Key Steps Towards Driving Systems Change”, argues that the intervention is in fact the design of the system itself. In keeping with Jefferson’s view, he encourages people and organizations to build maps to use as a tool to generate an effective conversation and understand the leverage points – the people and processes that make the system tick – in order to devise a multi-dimensional strategy to address its’ problems and define a new truth. In essence, both Clemens and Jefferson promote the use of a visual tool, an artefact, which can serve in de-risking the unknown by providing a common vision as well as a more simplified understanding of the intersection of networks in the complex system.
For fellow panelist Gary Cohen, President of Health Care Without Harm, the map was created over the course of his journey rather than as an initial guiding tool. Cohen acknowledged that he would have certainly arrived at pivotal outcomes sooner if he had better understood the lay of the land before embarking on this journey. However, the ‘learn by doing’ approach allowed him to create a mental map of the US healthcare system, in which he had no formal training, and use it to navigate foreign seas and discover new territory in the European healthcare system and eventually disrupt the global system, winning a global ban on mercury, a leading and preventable cause of harm within the industry.
The third and final panelist, Sarah Stevern, Senior Director of Stakeholder Mobilization at Nike Inc, provided examples of compelling visual maps created in collaboration with Greenpeace and select partners within the footwear and apparel industry designed to help solve the problem of hazardous chemicals in global supply chains. By recognizing the interconnectedness of the system and acknowledging that elements such as production facilities are shared by many other brands, they were able to bring organizations together to create a coalition and nurture the concept of transparency. By bringing policy makers, NGOs, media, business and even chemical companies into the map making process, we will hopefully start to see the open access mapping we did in 1596 with Portuguese cartography and, thus, experience the same level of disruption.
The map is a visual artefact that allows people to come together, have a conversation, share, learn and collaboratively identify the right levers to pull and the right people to initiate change. It is a tangible tool that can be replicated and scaled and, most importantly, provides a shared vision, a ‘social fiction’ as Muhammed Yunus would say, used to mobilize people and support champions that want to create systems change. Map making should not be seen as the ancient practice of explorers, but rather as the modern tool for architects and designers of future systems, which breed open innovation and propagate greater social and environmental good.
This is a guest post by Meagan Johnson, an MBA student at the University of Oxford.