Participatory Systems Mapping in a Socially Distanced World

Published: 3 July 2020

Policy decision-making is most effective when all stakeholders play an active role in the process of problem solving.

Participatory systems mapping (PSM) is a common graphical approach to capturing a range of stakeholder views when exploring way to address societal challenges. PSM offers a process in which stakeholders with different perceptions, expectations, and levels of expertise can work together to develop a shared understanding of a system, how it behaves under different circumstances, and how we might intervene to influence outcomes (e.g. using policy levers).

Shifting towards digitally-enabled systems mapping

Traditional methods of PSM conjure up images of groups of people, often in a fixed place and time, who are huddled around tables covered in flip chart, paper and post-its. After hours of discussing the topic focus of a systems map in detail, workshop participants go home, leaving the organising team to collate ideas and information that has been shared into a map that looks something like this:


Images from Freebairn et al. 2019.

The process can be efficient for small-scale systems with a narrow focus and limited number of stakeholders, but its applicability and usefulness can be challenging for large-scale systems that are not easily bounded. Most importantly:

  • The process does not work well for complex systems with potentially hundreds of interlinking variables and many stakeholders. Digital technologies can assist this (i.e. by applying filtered views) to manage the cognitive challenges of mapping complexity;
  • The process can be challenging for very busy people with competing demands who may find it difficult to find the time to attend a face-to-face workshop; and,
  • The process is difficult when physical meetings are not possible, for example, as we recently found ourselves in the UK-wide lockdown due to the spread of Covid-19.

Complementing the traditional hands-on mapping process with digital technologies can be useful. This can help participants to join the process from anywhere in the world (as long as you can ensure Internet coverage and functionality of web-based tools) and perhaps at a time that is convenient to them. Popular examples include the concepts of Active Citizenship (the use of GIS technology within public participation), Serious Games (the computer games primarily designed for a purpose rather than pure entertainment), as well as web-based simulation tools such as Insightmaker.

The SIPHER approach to systems mapping

Systems mapping is at the heart of our research process in SIPHER. Starting with the topic of Inclusive Economies, we are working with policy-makers and academics to develop whole-systems maps that illustrate the interrelationship between inequality, health and wellbeing. This shared understanding of the system informs various elements of our research including evidence synthesis, microsimulation, and causal system dynamics modelling, as well as the development of our decision support tools.

The case study we describe here is for mapping an inclusive economy in Greater Manchester. Our participants were policy colleagues who work within Greater Manchester, for example in transport, planning and housing, and economic development, as well as academics with research expertise in inequalities, inclusive growth and social policy. From the outset, we collaborated with colleagues in GMCA to design and deliver an iterative mapping process that includes elicitation of data, population of the map (with relationships) and visualisation of outcomes.


Original image from SIPHER GMCA Systems Mapping Workshop

During elicitation, we used a combination of individual interviews with policymakers, documentary analysis, and conversations with policy colleagues to scope out the big picture of the system. We used this information to design a live polling exercise to collect data to understand the relative importance of system drivers in advance of the workshop. This enabled us to pre-populate our chosen web-based systems mapping platform with the factors that our participants felt were important for understanding how developing an inclusive economy might impact on inequalities, health and wellbeing. Therefore, instead of starting from a blank page, our workshop began with a map that looked a lot like this…


Original image from SIPHER GMCA Systems Mapping Workshop

Our first mapping workshop, on the 30 March 2020, was planned as a face-to-face facilitated group discussion using a web-based mapping platform that we designed to enable real-time elicitation of relationships on the map. However, as the UK approached lockdown in mid-March we converted this event into a fully virtual systems mapping workshop. Consequently, elicitation, visualisation, verification, and improvement of the map, have all been managed virtually.

As we are not aware of any other fully virtual interactive systems mapping processes, we thought it might be useful to share our key learning for anyone out there who may be thinking of following in our virtual systems mapping footsteps.

Learning from virtual systems mapping process

Successful participatory systems mapping requires effective communication and collaboration between all stakeholders over the course of mapping process. This can be seen at different stages such as pre-workshop, in-workshop, and post-workshop. In the following, we share some of what we learned at these stages.

Key Point 1: Pre-workshop (preparation)

Before gathering the participants together for the facilitated group discussion, plan considerable preparation time to expose the complexity of the topic system and to synthesize existing knowledge of the system. In our case, this included time to:

  • Develop a shared understanding of the purpose of the mapping, including identifying synergies and conflicts in views, key drivers of the system, and enabling policymakers to think about wider influencing factors for their decisions;
  • Develop a set of guidance to bound the scope of the map. Our experience of mapping Inclusive Economies shows how the definition and scope can change significantly when looking at a local, regional, or national scale. Be prepared to get very different answers to the same questions depending on who you are talking to;
  • Be clear about who your participants are and how they contribute to the mapping process. Ask yourself if the system that you are mapping is a ‘policy system’ (as perceived by the policy community) or an observation of a ‘societal system’ (perceived by a wider community).

We will not dwell on the details of these points here because we believe that you need all of these things irrespective of the way you deliver a mapping workshop, just to say that getting these things right is even more important in a virtual workshop to ensure the mapping is effective.

Key Point 2: Pre-workshop (designing polls)

Given the relatively limited time each person could commit to a workshop (and that spending long periods of time in a videoconference is pretty draining!) we found it helpful to elicit the key variables in the map before the workshop. To ascertain the collective importance that participants attributed to different elements of the map we used a five-point Likert scale (ranging from “not important” to “essential”). These polls could be completed by participants at a time convenient to their schedules.

We used the information shared to develop a prioritisation system for the workshop sessions, identifying the elements that our workshop participants collectively felt were most important. This helped us to make the most of our time together by focusing the discussion on the attributes of the relationship between factors that are important for subsequent quantitative modelling (i.e. directionality, strength of relationship and confidence). The pre-work also support our participants to start to engage with the mapping process in the days leading up to the facilitated workshop, which was a useful preparatory activity.

Key Point 3: Pre-workshop (planning)

It is imperative that the workshop is planned carefully. Really clear instructions should be provided for each role (i.e. leader, facilitator, participant) prior to the workshop. Whereas in a face-to-face workshop it is relatively easy to seek advice or clarification from the workshop leader, in a virtual setting this can be a challenge because:

  • It is harder to read body language and other visual cues and so the flow of conversation is more easily disrupted; and,
  • Once you are all in different virtual rooms the workshop leader may not be available to you if they are switching between virtual rooms to make sure everything is running smoothly and effectively across the different groups.

It is also important to give participants enough time for each task (e.g. identifying links and their attributes) and that facilitators stick closely to the schedule because making up any lost time if workshop activities go off track can be particularly difficult in a virtual setting.

Key Point 4: In-workshop (interactivity)

Encouraging interactivity in a virtual workshop can be even more challenging than when face-to-face meetings and so it is important to pick the right tools to support your activity. This is not an easy task and there is a considerable body of research already out there on this (read more here). For us encouraging interactivity had two facets:

  • Interacting with each other: choose a videoconferencing platform that you are confident in and make sure you have at least one practice run in advance. We found features such as being able to send people to breakout rooms and pull them back together automatically very useful;
  • Interacting with the map: we wanted to use an interactive and configurable online mapping platform so that workshop participants could see the development of the systems map in real time. We also wanted our facilitators to be able to use designed scripts and filters, and to take notes all in one place, as part of the workshop activity.

Picking the right tool is a balance between functionality and user-friendliness. It is useful to list your specific systems mapping requirements and then compare available tools to find the one that most closely matches your needs. We could not find one perfect tool to meet all our needs, but it is worth checking out the different options such as Kumu, Mental Modeler, and FCMappers.

Key Point 5: In-workshop (facilitation)

People act and interact very differently in a virtual setting and so to facilitate a lively and productive discussion, we:

  • Ran with smaller breakout groups than we had planned in our face-to-face workshop. This required close monitoring on the day to ensure that each smaller group had a good make-up of experience;
  • Doubled up our facilitators where possible to help guide the discussion: one for helping people to interact with each other and keeping the flow of conversation going and the other for interacting with the online mapping platform.

These steps were important for giving participants the chance to debate and agree on what the system looks like, which is an important part of the PCM process.

Would we do it again?

Absolutely! Participatory systems mapping is about supporting better-informed decision-making by bringing the diverse expertise on a topic together to develop shared understanding and solution. Geography does not have to be a barrier to this process and effective use of ever-growing digital technologies, with meticulous planning, make it possible to run successful virtual systems mapping processes. This has positive implications for both our current times where we are necessarily remote from one another, but also for pulling together diverse expertise and experiences from across the globe into future mapping activities.


First published: 3 July 2020

<< Blog