Powers of Ten: Mapping systems-level gaps using the SX Canvas

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Lucía Ávila and Luis Marines

The emergence of global policies and restrictions throughout the pandemic has only maximized the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment we live in and that we have experienced for decades; accelerating at the same time processes of cultural transformation and reinforcing the inequality gaps that have characterized developing countries, markedly conducted by neoliberal public policies.

Due to the multiplicity of critical scenarios that we face nowadays, it is essential for designers to accelerate the way we adopt and adapt thinking models and frameworks that allow us to visualize the interdependencies, causalities, and purposes presented within complex systems, to ideate potential interventions that enable systems-level changes.

Using the SX Canvas

During this workshop, participants will use the Systemic Experience (SX) Canvas, a generative tool based on the soft systems methodology and designed to constantly ‘zoom in & zoom out’ of a wicked problem alternating both user and system-centric perspectives to understand an issue. This tool allows workshop attendees to strategically identify and visualize the elements, relationships, and the quality of interactions between a system and the experience of its actors, which generates dynamics with social, economic, cultural, and technological implications that could be considered to design intervention strategies through participatory processes amongst different kinds of stakeholders. In other words, the SX Canvas has been designed to accelerate the process of identifying the root causes behind a problem and potential leverage points by making explicit the relationships between both the system and its embedded human experiences. An example can be found at Utopías Líquidas (Spanish only).

Pre-work activity

Participants will be asked to walk around their cities to locate and record (with video/photo) scenes of relevant systemic issues with both local and global implications. These visual records will be shared prior to the workshop to identify common topics that could be addressed during the session.

SX Canvas Mapping

Participants will be split into small groups to map the elements and systemic experiences of a wicked problem selected by each group, using the SX Canvas’s sections:

  • Situation: Visual evidence that describes the situation of interest (e.g., a moment of a user journey, a process from the perspective of a user). Some questions during this sub-stage:
    • What moments are we observing? Why do we consider these moments as the most important? Do we recognize any pattern or similarity between the situation presented by another participant?
    • Is this situation too specific or can we consider it as part of a larger problem that is replicated in other contexts?
    • How relevant are these situations? How has it changed over time (e.g., considering the COVID-19 pandemic)? Do we have a way to represent this variation over time (e.g., comparing the situation with a photo from 2018 versus one from 2021)?
  • Circumstances: List of circumstances that contribute to producing the situation of interest (e.g., societal, or ecological issues). Some questions during this sub-stage:
    • What major events or moments are supporting this situation? Is there a concept or theory that has already classified these events (e.g., “social distancing”)?
    • What are the social, economic, and technological factors that are driving this situation to reproduce? Can we recognize some that are more difficult to change or have been happening for a long time in the same context?
    • Does the circumstance you noted change if we view it with a zoom-in or a zoom-out in space or time (e.g. from minutes to weeks, from individual to society)?
  • Actants: Network of actants involved or related to the described circumstances (e.g., institutions, users, employees). Some questions during this sub-stage
    • Which people and living beings are involved in the situations mentioned in the previous section?
    • How can we differentiate them by their level of influence and proximity to the main problem? Why? (e.g., friends are closer to the youth than the government since they have constant and direct communication with him).
    • Does the level of influence amongst actants change over time? Is there an actant that goes from the direct network to being part of the support network? (e.g., the friends abandon the young man and become just a community again)
    • Is there an actant that we are not considering? Is it possible that we are excluding someone because we are looking at the problem as external viewers? Is the existence of another network something that we can or have to investigate or validate?
  • Ideal relationships: Ideal/desired value exchange relationships/transactions between the actors and the mapped circumstances (e.g., emotions, transactions, etc.). Some questions during this sub-stage:
    • What is the ideal purpose that each of the listed actants should fulfil with each other? Can we represent this as a give-and-get interaction? (e.g., the police should give protection to the civilian population, the civilian population should offer respect to the regulation of public life)
    • What types of exchanges are most important to define the relationship between actants as “ideal”? Do we recognize various exchanges? Is there any more relevant and decisive than another? (e.g., economic transactions, material exchanges, supply & demand chain value, etc.)
  • Experiences: Reasons why the ideal relationships are not met, or, in other words, the gaps between the experience lived by the actants and the ideal relationship (e.g., pain points, needs, etc.). Some questions during this sub-stage:
    • What are the main reasons why the original purposes of the ideal exchange relationships between the actors are not fulfilled?
    • What is missing, is not fulfilled or is not achieved satisfactorily? Why? Is this gap decisive for expectations not being met? Is there any other influencing factor?
    • What criteria are we considering reassuring this is the gap that exists between the ideal and the real relationship? Is there something that we may be assuming or starting from some preconception?
  • Mental models and consequences: Implicit norms and consequences that are generated as a result of these experiences (e.g., mindsets, myths, etc.). Some questions during this sub-stage:
    • What are the implicit norms or mental models that we believe support and maintain the gaps that we have just described between how it should be and what the current experience is like?
    • What consequences, positive or negative, result from these norms? Is it possible to anticipate them or do we discover them until they affect the problem in the long term? How can we name them in a single word (e.g. “normalization”, “minimization”)?
    • How do these rules and consequences connect with the circumstances we mapped at the beginning of the activity?

Causal loop building

After using the SX Canvas to map their problem, participants will be asked to identify patterns and dynamic interactions that could be connected to each other. Then, they will be required to map one causal loop that is embedded into their system map.

Exploring RSD10 themes

Breaks in scale: This workshop aims to offer practitioners an alternative method to easily integrate both macroscopic and microscopic perspectives into their projects. By using a framework that allows diverse stakeholders to discuss and confront their perception about a system and its embedded experiences, the SX Canvas represents an approachable option to generate system & user-centred visions and conversations while working with complex issues.

Collaboration and transdisciplinary working: We have tested the SX Canvas with stakeholders from the public and humanitarian sector that, despite their shared or common goals, had totally different backgrounds and levels of expertise compared to their peers. Using this framework as a conversational tool helps to set the stage for cross-disciplinary ways of working led by a design-driven process. Learnings and outcomes from this workshop will help participants identify opportunities to generate more efficiency and collaboration amongst their stakeholders and could be also considered for best practices as moderators in strategic design activities.

Workshop format

120 minutes | 10-15 participants

Workshop Agenda: Using the SX Canvas

Pre-work activity: Locate and record (with video/photo) scenes of relevant systemic issues with both local and global implications.

SX Canvas Mapping: Small groups map the elements and systemic experiences of a wicked problem selected by each group, using the SX Canvas’s sections.

  • Circumstances: List of circumstances that contribute to producing the situation of interest (e.g., societal, or ecological issues).
  • Actants: Network of actants involved or related to the described circumstances (e.g., institutions, users, employees).
  • Ideal relationships: Ideal/desired value exchange relationships/transactions between the actors and the mapped circumstances (e.g., emotions, transactions, etc.).
  • Experiences: Reasons why the ideal relationships are not met, or, in other words, the gaps between the experience lived by the actants and the ideal relationship (e.g., pain points, needs, etc.).
  • Mental models and consequences: Implicit norms and consequences that are generated as a result of these experiences (e.g., mindsets, myths, etc.).

Causal loop building: After using the SX Canvas to map their problem, participants can identify patterns and dynamic interactions that could be connected between each other and map one causal loop.

SX Canvas

Keywords: strategic design, generative tools, systems mapping, causal loops

RSD proceedings are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. This permits anyone to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or form according to the licence terms.

Citation

Author(s) (20XX). Article title. In Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSDX) 20XX Symposium. City, Country, Month X-X, 20XX.

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