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Four things I learned from taking part in Map the System

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from Mount Royal University competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event. Team member Jillian Mah shares her learnings from the process of mapping the Canadian charity system for the competition.

Over the past 10 months, I joined a team at Mount Royal University to compete in the Map the System Competition alongside two wonderful people, Ashley Dion and Matthew Taburadaf for whom I am incredibly grateful to have worked with. 

I won’t speak for them, but here are a few of the many things I’ve learned over the course of the project.  

1. You don’t know complexity until you’re sucked into 100 holes, but it’s good learning!

When we started this project, we had no idea how big it would grow into. What began as a small curiosity about a trend quickly grew into a massive exploration of human psychology and behaviour, feedback loops, organizational dynamics, funding models, ideologies, statistics, data, policy, and philosophy. Being a beginner in most of these areas, it was a lot to take on, but in a way, it was an advantage to take a birds-eye view of these things and make connections between them. Because of the freedom we allowed ourselves to explore, Map the System was one of the best educational experiences I’ve had. 

2. Systems maps mean nothing unless they tell a story.

Speaking of complexity, making sense of the complexity is a challenge on its own. Language and representation are powerful, and the smallest details make such a difference. The implications of representation, narrative, language, visuals, hierarchy, centering, and production are many. Further, representation cannot be done without bias, and I’ll be the first to say my biases were challenged during this project. Turning complex research into a clear, simple story is an act that requires careful attention. 

3. Systems and human experiences cannot be separated. 

Systems are created and maintained by people. Our ideas, histories, and values inform every part of our systems. Systems also affect people, and understanding people needs to be at the centre of the conversation. Consequently, within Canada, there are many different ways of thinking about social good, and even ways more globally. Questions like whose job it is to create social good, how to go about it, and what our expectations are of each other and ourselves have no single answer.

4. Building on this, there is no single way of creating change

A question that we were asked multiple times throughout the course of the project was, unsurprisingly, “so what?” What should we do to make sure people are taken care of? What do we need to fix? 

Fair enough, that’s a good question. And our answer? Well, there is no simple answer, since there is no single definition of social good. What we do know is that meaningful, sustainable change comes from systemic change, and the part of the system that change comes from is our people and their mental models. The systems we design and our fundamental ways of knowing are closely intertwined.

Change is not a one-way street. Shifts in the system require a shift in mental models, just as shifts in mental models require a shift in the system. It’s not enough to just focus on local or systems levels; both are necessary.

Importantly, however, this leads me right back to my first point about complexity. The complexity of systems is what makes them so wicked, yet so intriguing to explore. Systems will always be hard to fully understand, and even harder to change. Systems mapping is nothing short of a challenge, but one of the most worthwhile challenges to take on. Awareness, intent, learning, and finding wonder are values I hold close to my heart, and the Map the System challenge offered me every opportunity to embrace these values.

If you are interested in learning more about our project or otherwise, please feel free to reach out to me.