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  • Geoff Mulgan

Systems mapping and action

[This blog (by me and Jeremy Williams) was published on the IPPO website ahead of an online session on systems mapping in November 2023]

At IPPO, systems maps are one of the tools we use to help inform better decision-making with evidence. The idea behind them is that maps of this kind allow us to better understand how often complex things work – as well as how they can be influenced, including by policy. Systems mapping is not new. Methods for making sense of complex systems have been widely used by businesses and governments at least since the 1950s. A generation ago, the UK government Strategy Unit used systems and systems maps as a common language to help different groups – economists, engineers, civil servants, psychologists, activists – work together on policy design. Putting together systems maps helped clarify the causal links around an issue and whether there was reliable knowledge.

Geoff Mulgan’s book The Art of Public Strategy describes these in more depth, and their use on everything from urban regeneration to fishing.

Different approaches

There is now a rich array of tools for mapping systems available with some of these set out in this UCL/STEaPP report from 2021. Examples (showcased in our event) include the innovative maps of the Catalan food system and Early Childhood Development in Emergency from Viliana Dzhartova of Reimagined Futures; the work of Alex Penn of CECAN – the Centre for the Evaluation of Complexity Across the Nexus; Alice Louka who leads the Map the System programme, Roisin Dillon who won their global competition in 2018, and Tom Hughes who has worked with systems maps at the National Infrastructure Commission.

Visual maps are often more intuitively useful for capturing the connections and complexity of how the world works than simply relying on written prose.

What do we mean by systems?

At IPPO, we also try to reflect not just on what methods are useful but also on what the terms we use to describe these methods mean, especially as people often mean slightly different things when discussing them. For example, some systems maps are conceptual, while others are technical, and others still are concerned with socio-economic dynamics. Similarly, some try to be comprehensive, while others are highly selective.

This topic is also tricky because the words ‘systems’ and ‘systems change’ are sometimes used in very vague or overly generic ways – ignoring the fact that the word ‘system’ is doing very different things when we talk about the energy supply system, the health system or the political system.

With this in mind, we have formulated an approach which tries to be quite precise and perhaps more limited. Our focus here is on what is helpful for decision-makers, mainly within governments, rather than on a broader view.

Our approach

Our focus on policy action therefore leads to three design imperatives. We want to focus on power and agency – not just description. We want to look at evidence – how confident can we be about our diagnoses and prescriptions. And we also want to focus on questions which are sufficiently granular that there is a good prospect of action. This is because if questions get too broad or too complex, they become very hard to use. So for example, mapping the whole of the capitalist system might be interesting – but probably not so much help for guiding action.

We have also tried to distinguish systems from thinking systemically. Sometimes what we will be examining is not really a system in the classic definition of something full of interdependent parts (the dictionary definition is ‘a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole’). Instead, it might be a topic that we want to look at systematically, while recognising that it is not a system in this sense.

For example, the electricity system really is a system in that it consists of players who affect each other profoundly, and the system’s properties as a system influence how it works (even while it is also affected by other systems – such as finance, war and politics). By contrast another topic we are looking at – the question of converting workspace in city centres to residential use in response to the rise in working from home and housing affordability crisis in our urban centres – is not a system. But it is very useful to apply systems mapping methods to understand the dynamics of what might influence choices and what effects these might have.

Introducing the SEPPA Method

As a result of these considerations and in drawing on existing best practices, we introduce our new SEPPA Method, called as such because it is a means to map Systems, Evidence and Power for Policy Action. The method comprises a five-step mapping process to produce systems maps with an explicit focus on utility for policymakers working on a particular issue.

The SEPPA Method comprises the following five stages:

1. SKETCHING First, we try to do a rough sketch – who are the key players, what are the main causal links, what are both good and bad outcomes.

2. COLLABORATIVE MAPPING Second, we use this sketch to bring together a wider group of experts and stakeholders to populate it and enrich it, until we have a more comprehensive map

3. EVIDENCE ASSESSMENT Third, we overlay this with the evidence – how well are the key causal links understood, how much is known about what works, and how can we understand the key points of leverage and influence

4. POLICY DESIGN AND IMPROVEMENT Fourth, we then work with policymakers to try out different options and think through their dynamic effects (potentially combined with the many available innovation and creativity methods, as well as learning from promising innovations)

5. REFINEMENT Finally, an analysis of the chosen options is enriched with other methods such as quantitative modelling, stakeholder engagement, and addressing capacity needs.

Our belief is that by the end of this process, we will help provide a much better understanding of the dynamics in play, the options for policymakers, and how they could be implemented.

Next steps

We will be rolling out the SEPPA Method for upcoming work on topics including converting office space to residential housing, the role of Innovation Districts in combatting spatial inequality, and more. While we are confident that this method can prove fruitful in for public policy, it remains an experimental one about which we remain humble and open to new ideas. We therefore welcome any suggestions of methods and tools that can be used for each of these stages; good examples; and offers of help in putting these into practice.


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