Systems Mapping

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 7, 2015 on the RECODE Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from RECODE. 

Over the past year, we have had the pleasure of working with Intel on systems mapping, which involves crowdsourcing information gathered through their meticulously designed surveys and then sharing the data visually in partnership with Vibrant Data. Through this initiative, we have been fortunate to work with Intel’s Tony Salvador—engineer, social scientist, and most of all, a wonderful humanist. Below, Tony takes us into his world of mapping systems with RECODE.

It’s so totally cool that Canadians would consider it right and reasonable to come together to consider a question of national interest such as how to catalyze a new culture of innovation throughout the country.

At issue for us, as researchers at Intel working on systems mapping tools, is how to have the conversation in the best possible way, so that all voices are heard and that perspectives are aired to discover the wheat amidst the chaff. We find it very useful to think about Canada not just as a country or a thing like a donut, but rather as a system of interacting people, thoughts, actions, policies, and sentiments. In fact, we find it very useful to think about Canada as a complex, socio-technical system from which emerges order based on individual actions (and inactions). But as a complex system, individual actions are often not predictive of the emergent properties of the system.

We think a conversation considering the (re-)creation of a culture of innovation in Canada is not a reductive conversation; it’s not a conversation about the parts and it’s not a challenge resolved by an engineering approach. Rather, it’s a synthesized conversation about the whole. It’s a conversation that builds on itself, that combines and recombines ideas and thoughts to create new possibilities. Of course, the combinations of ideas and thoughts Canadians can – and do – have about innovation would be astronomical if there wasn’t a way to isolate the key points.

Our work with RECODE uses system mapping tools to help systematically and synthetically build a conversation and identify a set of waypoints to contribute to an innovation culture in Canada. And most importantly, as social scientists, we believe our tools help to establish a culture of innovation that is uniquely Canadian and that accounts for and builds on what it means to be Canadian.

We’ve already introduced the survey, which was very long and comprehensive for participants. The survey results are a cumulative list of important nodes or factors that together are the identified factors necessary to nourish an innovation culture. However, a list of ingredients does not tell you how to bake the cake. For this, we need to know the relative amounts of each, what things influence what other things, how much of some things are necessary, and how little of other things. To do this, we’ve worked with Eric Berlow from mappr to construct a mapping tool that allows participants to identify the relationships of any one node/factor to all other nodes/factors and to determine the strength (strong/weak) and the direction of the relationship (positive/negative).

The result, we hope, will be a systematically (Canadian) crowd-sourced complex network structure that synthesizes the list of all factors to provide a recipe, if you will, of waypoints to catalyze a socio-cultural system of innovation throughout Canada – one that takes into account aspects from the social to the economic. The map, like a treasure map, is a start. There will be many discussions on implementation. But we hope the map will provide a way to focus conversations on the most catalytic issues. For us, as researchers, it’s a privilege to work with RECODE and all partners on this quest(ion).