The number of multi-stakeholder partnerships (including organized collaborations between governments, businesses and civil society organizations) that address the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has rapidly expanded since 2015. Many of these partnerships are working to transform complex systems from an unsustainable to a sustainable pathway, such as moving from fast fashion to a circular fashion industry; switching from a fossil fuel-dependent economy towards a renewable energy-dependent economy; revamping the global financial system to create impact investment opportunities for marginalized communities; or reducing ocean plastic pollution by creating new markets for recycled plastics.

Goal 17 of the SDGs emphasizes these transformational partnerships, but little is known about their impact and contribution to systems change. As a result, questions remain on their effectiveness.

Today, systems thinking is needed more than ever because we are becoming overwhelmed by complexity,” said Peter Senge, a leading thinker on systems dynamics modeling, in his book The Fifth Discipline. “Perhaps for the first time in history, humankind has the capacity to create far more information than anyone can absorb, to foster far greater interdependency than anyone can manage, and to accelerate change far faster than anyone’s ability to keep pace.

Systems change evaluation and multi-stakeholder partnership experts are placing increasing emphasis on the need for partnerships to integrate systems thinking and understand the system they’re working in before and during partnership implementation. This will allow partnerships to better:

  • design innovative solutions that target system leverage points that are best suited to take advantage of players unique value, skills and experience;
  • identify the right partners and champions to engage;
  • align partners on a systems understanding and transformation vision;
  • adapt and respond to changes within and external to the partnership; and
  • evaluate whether the partnership is contributing to systems change.

Systems at all scales are dynamic and composed of a variety of actors, interconnections, power dynamics and underlying cultural mindsets. All of these can shift based on things like election cycles, economic recessions, cultural movements, natural disasters and, as of recently, a pandemic. This often means partnerships need to pivot to make sure they stay on track for their transformation goals.

This leads to the concept of systems mapping, which partnerships can use to understand the systems they’re working on and align on a shared vision and strategy for change. WRI’s recent research in the upcoming report, A Time for Transformative Partnerships: How Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships Can Accelerate the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and recent collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Institute on the Systems Change Lab both explore systems mapping as a vital success factor. This research shows that systems mapping is not only needed for multi-stakeholder partnerships seeking to transform complex systems to a sustainable pathway, but can — and should — be tailored to a partnership’s goals and available resources.

What Is Systems Mapping?

Broadly speaking, systems mapping is the creation of visual depictions of a system, such as its relationships and feedback loops, actors and trends. Systems mapping is intended to provide a simplified conceptual understanding of a complex system that, for collective action purposes, can get partners on the same page. Multiple systems mapping methods and tools exist, but expert Steve Waddell recently noted that “knowing the full range is difficult if not impossible, new ones are continually evolving, and knowledge about them is highly fragmented.”

However, some tools and methods are more commonly used or promoted by systems change evaluation experts and partnerships. Multiple free training resources were developed from organizations focusing on collective and social impact, such as FSG’s Systems Thinking Toolkit. Understanding each method’s focus, strengths and weaknesses is also important and can help a partnership decide which to use.

  • Actor Mapping is a tool used to understand system stakeholders and relationship structures, However, it is not well-suited for understanding the “why” of the system, including underlying issues and trends.
  • Appreciative Inquiry uses a strength-based storytelling approach to help identify positive future outlooks for a system. It is a highly participatory approach that’s well-suited for setting a vision and enhancing cooperation between stakeholders, but is not strong at identifying underlying system issues.
  • Causal Loop Diagrams are visual depictions of the causal relationships between elements in a system, but they can be quite time intensive.
  • Issue Mapping is a tool for understanding political, social, economic or other issues that underly complex systems, making it a common choice from an advocacy perspective. The value of issue maps, however, is highly dependent on asking the right questions and getting the right people together.
  • Social Network Analysis is a tool for understanding social structures and networks. It can be used to explore key stakeholders and decision-makers to engage and identify potential bottlenecks, but there are concerns that SNA does not effectively capture the stock and flow structures of systems.

New online tools are also becoming available, several of which combine multiple mapping methods. Some of the more popular tools include:

  • Insight Maker, a free tool that allows users to build causal loop diagrams, then layer on systems dynamics and agent-based modeling. This allows them to look at aggregate macro-level behaviors, as well as individual behaviors and interactions.
  • Kumu, a tool with various price points that can map actors, social networks, community assets and concepts to create causal loop diagrams.
  • Smaply, a stakeholder and journey mapping tool where users can add information about a stakeholder to build out their persona.
  • Social network analysis tools, which range from more business-focused online paid offerings, such as Socilyzer, to opensource analytical software, such as Gephi
  • Lucid Chart, a tool that can be used for any type of mapping, including mental mapping, stakeholder mapping, white boarding and general collaborative visualization.
  • GroupMap, a real-time online brainstorming tool that includes several stakeholder mapping templates.

Systems Mapping In Action

The examples below show how some partnerships used systems mapping tools to understand different aspects of their system and create outputs that moved the partnership forward. These examples demonstrate how systems mapping tools can lead to success in partnerships.

NextWave Plastics

NextWave Plastics(NWP) is a coalition of multinational technology and consumer companies committed to reducing marine plastic pollution. NWP member companies integrate recycled ocean-bound plastics and mismanaged plastic litter captured within 50 kilometers of shoreline into their products and packaging. Current members of the consortium include Bureo, Dell Technologies, General Motors, Herman Miller, HP Inc., Humanscale, IKEA, Interface, Solgaard and Trek Bicycle. NWP’s convening partner, Lonely Whale, in coordination with the other inaugural partner, Dell Technologies, led the charge in developing a holistic systems understanding and partnership vision before engaging other member companies to build a global network of ocean-bound plastic supply chains.

To identify potential member companies to engage in their vision of reducing ocean-bound plastic, founding members Lonely Whale and Dell Technologies used a lighter version of actor mapping. In order to identify actors that were already integrating ocean-bound plastics into their supply chain or those with the potential to do so, NWP produced a list of relevant companies as opposed to a conceptual map. Interestingly, due to their extensive research and networking with experts, NextWave was able to secure membership from competing companies in the same industry — HP and Dell, Humanscale and Herman Miller. This collection of companies serves as a nod to the power of civil society organizations as conveners and the trust that others have in them.

NWP continues to utilize system mapping to better understand and react to evolving supply chain development opportunities. They mapped their existing supplier network, as well as potential ocean-bound plastic source locations, which are informed by scientific research on the most significant contributing countries to ocean plastic pollution and a market assessment of adequate ocean-bound plastic collection and recycling. The ocean-bound plastic supply locations can be mapped visually, but a more functional database provides members with detailed information, leading to decisions on which countries and with what suppliers to pursue ocean-bound plastic material sourcing. This allows for maximum impact on ocean plastic pollution while informing effective business decisions.

Rocky Mountain Institute — India Electric Mobility

Rocky Mountain Institute convened a group of other climate-focused organizations working in India —including WRI, NRDC and ClimateWorks Foundation — to generate a shared map and understanding of what it will take to dramatically accelerate electric vehicle adoption in India. An initial version of a map was created specifically to discover the barriers to adopting electric assets in India. The group then iterated on the map, leveraging their different perspectives over time to create a more complete picture.

While it is important to be intentional with the outputs of a mapping exercise, a large part of the value comes from the collaborative process itself. The discussion, driven by the map, articulated that a shared understanding of the drivers and barriers of the system is helpful for creating complementary strategies about what, where and how to intervene in the system.

It was especially helpful that the causal loop diagrams were not specific to the work of any single organization, but allowed for a discussion of the dynamics at play. By allowing the group to alter the map based on their perspectives, these experts also benefited from the opportunity to hear about lessons learned from their colleagues and to think about how strategies should change over time, including what some of the most salient impacts of COVID-19 might be and how their organizations might pivot to react to these dynamics.

Systems maps can be overwhelming to look at without being a part of the creation process.  However, animating and stepping through the stories told by a system map is a helpful way to learn about the key parts of the system without becoming overwhelmed. An animated version of the India Mobility Electrification map can be found here.

Tips For Selecting the Right Systems Mapping Approach

When selecting the right systems mapping methods, tools or suite of methods and tools to use, these three steps can help set priorities:

  1. Identify your learning priorities and what will be most useful to share with your partners, champions and relevant decision-makers. Maybe you already have research to support the issue underlying the system from moving to a sustainable development pathway, but need to identify partners and champions. Maybe you need to establish a performance tracking or monitoring and evaluation system. No matter the case, identifying priorities will help you select the right methods and tools
  2. Designate staff to systems mapping and performance tracking and set a realistic budget. Many experts can be hired to run systems mapping exercises. Or, like with NextWave Plastics, the partnership’s administrator can drive regular systems evaluation and mapping. Either way, having at least one staff member with a dedicated job responsibility tied to systems mapping is critical for ensuring this task takes place. Knowing your budget can help you identify the right option for designating a staff member.
  3. Use a participatory approach. Most tools detailed above are participatory or can be made participatory in the exploration of their outputs. Time and time again, partnership guidance recommends including all core partners, relevant decision-makers and those impacted (either positively or negatively) by the partnership in developing a systems understanding. Transformative partnerships working in complex systems are largely working to disrupt the status quo or cultural mindsets, resulting in a shift of power balances where some people will lose power. Participation is key to aligning on the underlying issues of the system and solutions.

As more and more partnerships form to address the SDGs, it is critical to ensure that these partnerships effectively achieve their goals. Whether partnerships undergo systems mapping may be a make-or-break decision in whether they will have a lasting impact and be truly transformative.

For more information on how to develop a clear understanding of the system of interest and other partnering success factors, look forward to the upcoming WRI inaugural State-of-the-Art report, A Time for Transformative Partnerships: How Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships can Accelerate the UN Sustainable Development Goals which will be released in October 2020.