Climate and Nature

Systems mapping can facilitate the collective and shared understanding of complex problems

Systems mapping can be instrumental in highly complex problem solving.

Systems mapping can be instrumental in highly complex problem solving. Image: Unsplash/Alvaro Reyes

Rahmin Bender-Salazar
Assistant Professor in Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick
Domenico Dentoni
Professor and Co-Director, COAST Chair, Montpellier Business School
Rob Lubberink
Assistant Professor of Sustainability & Circular Economy, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, School of International Business
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Climate and Nature

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  • We live in an increasingly complex world, characterised by interconnected and intractable wicked problems.
  • Systems mapping offers a visual approach for collectively understanding and envisioning how to coordinate the addressing of these problems.
  • The agri-food sector is facing severe problems and systems mapping could be particularly instrumental in helping it navigate these difficulties.

We live in an increasingly complex world, characterised by interconnected and intractable wicked problems. There is a growing need to address these problems in a systemic way that zooms out, in, up, down, forward, backwards and around to ensure a robust, inclusive and innovative approach.

The agri-food sector is one area that has driven and been impacted by such problems, including, but not limited to, international conflict, energy, climate change, hunger, poverty, government regulation, social justice and economic policy. With increasing pressure on the sector due to climate change, social inequalities and an ever more tense geopolitical situation around the world, putting pressure on global value chains not seen since the Cold War, the agri-food system is in dire need of innovative approaches.

In principle, there is a growing consensus that the complex nature of social and ecological problems affecting food and agriculture systems requires interdisciplinary, cross-sector and multi-actor coordination among private strategies, social action, public policies and civic engagement. These actors in the agri-food sector, which include nearly every person on the planet in some way, are spread across scales and geographies and are increasingly demanding ways to address these multifaceted, intertwined challenges with collective solutions.

The visual applications of systems thinking and use of collective mapping to address wicked problems are increasingly being used as a method to bring together and address collective challenges with diverse actors, institutions and organizations. This approach involves increasing the collective understanding of interdependencies within a system to make strategic decisions.

The insights from the role of systems mapping can help facilitate a collective understanding of complex problems in the agri-food sector and show how practitioners, leaders, governments, farmers, business people, civil society organizations, international development professionals, academics and NGOs can use it to make effective decisions.

Systems mapping workshop of the ENFASYS project methodological framework.
Systems mapping workshop of the ENFASYS project methodological framework. Image: Copyright Marija Roglic for the ENFASYS project, COAST chair, Montpellier Business School and GDPR consent was given as part of the ENFASYS project

While there is a wide range of systems mapping tools available, many people lack a deep understanding of social-ecological systems. Intervening in the social-ecological systems without understanding them can hamper impact and even result in unintended negative consequences. These insights have come from years of applications of systems mapping in many iterations and adaptations given in a variety of business, educational and training settings, virtually and in-person, around the globe over a decade.

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Mapping and learning from key system features

To effectively apply systems mapping, it is important to understand what a system is and how it functions. Broadly speaking, systems are complex sets of nested relationships between elements, which may include societal actors, ecological agents and socio-ecological issues.

Seven of the key features of systems – that are often overlooked but should be considered in strategic decisions in the agri-food sector – include:

1. Interdependence: Agents within a system are autonomous, but also indirectly dependent on each other, hence changes in one element can have significant impacts on the entire system.

2. Level-multiplicity: Systems have multiple layers of organization, from individuals to communities to societies.

3. Dynamism: Systems are constantly changing and evolving over time.

4. Path dependency: Past decisions and actions can constrain and expand future possibilities.

5. Self-organization: Systems can be self-leading and governing, with emergent properties that cannot be predicted from the properties of the individual elements.

6. Non-linearity: Small changes in one part of a system can lead to significant changes in other parts of the system.

7. Complex causality: The causes and effects of system interactions and interventions are compound, interrelated and interconnected.

The challenges of applying systems thinking in practice

Despite the wide range of systems mapping tools available, there is little guidance for managers, policymakers, civil society and changemakers on how to select, combine and use these tools based on a sufficiently deep understanding of social-ecological systems. When organizations and individuals lack a comprehensive understanding of social-ecological systems, it can lead to a variety of scenarios with unintended outcomes and impacts.

This can cause negative consequences, such as the creation of unintended environmental or social problems. A policy intended to increase food production, for example, might lead to the degradation of natural resources or the displacement of local communities if not aware of the systemic impacts of change. This, in turn, could have impacts on the economy, health, government, schools and businesses of the local community.

Possible applications of mapping practice for systems change

To effectively apply systems mapping, practitioners, leaders, governments, farmers, business people, international development professionals, academics and NGOs need guidance on selecting, combining and using these tools effectively. There are several steps that can be taken to ensure that systems mapping is used to its full potential:

Develop a comprehensive understanding of social-ecological systems: This requires a deep understanding of the interdependencies between the different elements of the system.

• Use various system mapping tools: Different tools have different strengths and weaknesses, so it is essential to use a variety of tools to gain a comprehensive understanding of the system.

• Create a collaborative environment: Collective understanding of complex problems requires collaboration between actors from different backgrounds and perspectives.

• Engage in reflective practice: Reflection on the process, possible impacts, interactions and outcomes of systems mapping can help identify improvement areas and refine decision-making processes.

• Take an inclusive approach: Ensure that all stakeholders are involved in the mapping, including those who are traditionally excluded or marginalised but suffering most from the problem.

• Foster collaborative deliberation: Effective mapping leverages the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives of participants (see inclusivity) in the mapping process who create a shared understanding of the complex problems and pathways for interventions.

Systems mapping as a tool for collective action towards addressing problems

In conclusion, based on our research and continued application in practice, systems thinking and mapping can facilitate a shared understanding of complex problems, such as those faced in the agri-food sector, and aid in designing pathways for interventions. To use systems mapping effectively, however, all stakeholders need guidance on selecting, combining and using systems mapping tools.

Linking systems thinking and mapping supports the development of individual competencies and collective processes to address social-ecological problems. When approached in a reflective, collaborative, inclusive and learning mode, systems thinking and mapping can facilitate a collective understanding of complex problems and guide strategic decision-making by practitioners and change-makers in the agri-food sector and beyond.

This blog is grounded in the collaborative and collective research of:

Domenico Dentoni – Professor in Business, Resilience & Transformation and Co-Director of the Communication and OrgAnizing for Sustainable Transformations (COAST) Chair at Montpellier Business School

Carlo Cucchi – Advisor for Agribusiness and Rural Development at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation

Marija Roglic – Post-doctoral Scholar on Neo-Endogenous Management & Systems Thinking, Montpellier Business School

Rob Lubberink – Assistant Professor of Sustainability & Circular Economy at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, School of International Business

Rahmin Bender-Salazar – Assistant Professor in Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Limerick, Kemmy Business School & Founder at Creativo

Timothy Manyise Postdoctoral Fellow on Impact Assessment at WorldFish

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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