System transitions: a mapping workshop

Nicole Barling-Luke
6 min readDec 16, 2020

Thea and I recently hosted a session to test out how a particular systems transitions framework could help our shared understanding of reimagining government in Australia/New Zealand.

Background:

It all started with a tweet.

Since arriving back in Melbourne, from London, one year apart from each other Thea and I have both been discovering, and building our own maps of the ecosystem of people, organisations and forces within the field that we call “reimagining government.” And after many conversations, tweets and sessions, it felt time to add more dimensionality to the map — to explore how other people see and understand the landscape.

Enter Thea’s participation in the Systems Sanctuary Masterclass and introduction to the Geels’ Transitions Theory framework, which the Systems School describes as supporting people to “…visualize and make sense of collective and ecosystem strategies [and helping] system actors see how their work fits into the whole, see new connections, and identify gaps, opportunities and pathways forward.”

The framework encourages people working in different parts of the system to come together to plot and understand the different levels in which you can intervene in a system:

  • Landscape: narratives, culture, values, external variables
  • Regime: systems, structures and policies
  • Niche: innovations, new operating models
  • Deep Roots system: grassroots movements, personal and community transformation and healing, raising voices, self-empowerment, and holistic understanding of the intersectionality of issues

As 2020 comes to a close, it felt like a good time to pull together a group to see how we might collectively use this tool. We wanted to host a space for mapping, sensemaking and reflecting. But, perhaps more than anything, we wanted to create an opportunity for new people to get to know each other.

And so, starting small, we sent out an invite to come along to a workshop, framed quite explicitly as an experiment! In the first instance, we drew on our existing network, people we already know in this field. This included funders, public servants, consultants, academics. It has to be said, early and often, that this resulted in a relatively white, and undiverse group. Those we reached towards, the strongest ties in our network, and those that felt welcome and able to join were ‘people like us’. We reflected afterwards that this isn’t good enough, and needs to be corrected for any future workshops.

What we did.

Using the Systems Sanctuary’s version of the framework, we started with solo reflection time, offering people a chance to map the work they’d done across the different levels.

As someone commented, remembering the year that has been 2020 isn’t easy! This was partly our selfish agenda, we both were feeling the need to take stock of the year and assumed that some extra reflective time would be welcomed.

From there we moved into small groups and transferred our individual responses onto a collective map to see the whole spread. Safe to say we quickly ran out of room on the main map to capture everyone’s activities.

Discussion:

A few things that stood out in the conversation for us:

Understanding deep roots.

This layer was interpreted differently by different people. Some understood this to mean the inner transformation work a person has to do to interrogate their role in the system, while others interpreted this as meaning interventions like grassroots community projects.This highlights the toggling we all do between seeing ourselves as part of the system vs seeing the system as something we’re trying to change. Does thinking about our own deep roots, what keeps us rooted in and to the work, have different implications for thinking about deep roots across systems?

I personally loved seeing a miro board with responses like ‘meditation’, ‘therapy’, ‘embodied practices’ alongside new government projects at the regime level. We’ll be curious to see how a diffuse interpretation of the deep roots level might show up again, and what this means.

Relationships in systems

Recognising that much of the work of systems comes down to the relationships within it, can sometimes be hard work. Often it feels that we’re encouraged to prioritise other activities, and focus on outputs and deliverables. I’ve bemoaned this often and I found it useful to be challenged as part of this conversation by people who suggested that: a) relationship building does happen and (good) leaders value it and encourage it; and b) sometimes relationships and connectivity are nurtured and encouraged by systems, but in perverse ways. Think of the ‘boys club’ we often see around politics, hierarchies and government. That’s a form of connectivity and relationality that has been allowed and rewarded within the system.

Hearing this, we then reflected that we need to be more specific about the work of building relationships in the system. Time and space for connection between people and organisations needs to be prioritised, AND those connections and relationships need to be made up of diverse groups with power dynamics made visible.

All models are wrong, but some are useful

There was a question around whether this framework had implicit value judgements across the layers. What’s the relationship between the layers and is there a “right” place to begin? What does it mean to work across all the different levels?

As you can perhaps guess, we heard “it depends”.

Depending on what system you’re working in, different starting points and different layers will have different levels of complexity. Mapping a policy or systems space onto any model will have its limitations. We know there’s a deep irony of responding to complexity with a simple model. The value of mapping and models comes down to how we decide what to visualise, what choices we make about what to represent and then what story we choose to tell.

Perhaps, there are limitations to translating a model for studying socio-technological transitions in the environment space to systems change more broadly. We knew this going into it, but it’s always useful to see which models are useful for what.

I suspect this will be the key question that also shapes our continuing engagement. What are we useful for, together?

Defining what, for what and whom

This session was organised under the large umbrella of those working at ‘reimagining government’ — there’s a lot of different ways you can understand that. Do we need a more closely defined ‘field’ for exercises like this to be effective? I suspect there’s value in both having a broad definition and mapping seemingly unconnected activities as well as having a narrow definition and being more specifically portfolio minded. Which again brings us back to, what might this group be for?

What next

We set this out as an experiment. We’ve received some very generous feedback from people about how we might most valuably reconvene, and open it up, in 2021. It’s validating to see there’s energy around this and we’re excited by that. For now, that’s enough, and we’re going to have a summer break after a long year 🏖 👋

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