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What’s the difference between synthesis maps and gigamaps?

by | Feb 2024 | Format: Maps & Exhibits, Mapping Mondays, SDA blog, Topic: Mapping & Modelling

This article is developed from the sLab article What are Synthesis Maps and Gigamaps?

Gigamaps and synthesis maps result in rich images that visualise complex system problems and can be used as design artefacts across domains, for example, health to public policy or service experiences to social change. Both approaches are used with stakeholders for advising, planning, and designing for social and systemic challenges. They often share a process—the two mapping approaches are trained in coursework settings, often without access to direct stakeholders—so generative and ethnographic research is used to design. They share their status as first-phase system maps that draw on research, perspectives, and design problematics to generate coherent visual narratives that make sense to stakeholders knowledgeable in these domains. They can be employed to reveal systemics, propose future options design, and support proposals for continuing with in-depth stakeholder work. Both types of maps communicate complex concepts visually for service design and as descriptive artefacts for presentation in conferences and publications.

Therefore, as finished products, gigamaps and synthesis maps might look similar but differ in their developmental processes. First, there is a core difference in the contexts in which they have evolved. Gigamaps are part of the Oslo School of Architecture and Design’s (AHO) practice of engaging directly with a system problem and following the contours of the complexity expressed in a design space, described by Birger Sevaldson as direct engagement in the relations of a system. On the other hand, synthesis maps evolved from OCADU’s strategic foresight and innovation pedagogy, necessitating training students in systems thinking, learning system formalisms, and systemic design for complex multi-stakeholder problems. The synthesis map process is evidence-based and informed by theory—and is typically designed as a communicative artefact that translates multiple knowledge perspectives about social systems to illustrate the dilemmas and challenges within a complex system scenario.

In summary, synthesis maps are particularly effective in representing multi-level social systems in healthcare—indicating an outer boundary (e.g., national or provincial system), the service networks, agencies and specialised providers within a care context, for example. By contrast, gigamapping evolved from AHO and systemic oriented design, and the process results in an architectural and descriptive approach to complex projects, which is pursued through studio work using the research through design process.

Bubble Nebula by NASA

Synthesis maps illustrate the dilemmas and challenges within a complex system scenario

Jones P. & Kumar P.A. (2024). Fibreshed: A positive alternative for the fashion industry, consumers, and the planet. Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD12.

Bubble Nebula by NASA

Gigamaps represent direct engagement in the relations of a system

Davidová, M., Behnam, H., Valverde, M.C., Fadini, T., Haueise, J., Hauke, A., Ferrari, V., Ros Agulló, A.P., Florescu, M., Knutelský, S., Vujović, N., Wosiak, O., Cervantes, M.J.C., Yeh, H., Huang, J.,  Guerriero, C., Köse, M., & Ma, R. (2023) BioDiveIn and GoCOLife. Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD12.

Gigamapping related

Sevaldson, B. (2011). GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. Nordes, (4).

Gigamaps: Their role as bridging artefacts and a new sense sharing mode. Relating Systems Thinking and Design, RSD4.

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