Seven methods for mapping systems

By Pete Barbrook-Johnson and Alexandra S. Penn

1. Pete Barbrook-Johnson (biography)
2. Alexandra S. Penn (biography)

What are some effective approaches for developing causal maps of systems in participatory ways? How do different approaches relate to each other and what are the ways in which systems maps can be useful?

Here we focus on seven system mapping methods, described briefly in alphabetical order.

1. Bayesian Belief Networks: a network of variables representing their conditional dependencies (ie., the likelihood of the variable taking different states depending on the states of the variables that influence them). The networks follow a strict acyclic structure (ie., no feedbacks), and nodes tend to be restricted to maximum two incoming arrows. These maps are analysed using the conditional probabilities to compute the potential impact of changes to certain variables, or the influence of certain variables given an observed outcome.

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Models as ‘interested amateurs’

By Pete Barbrook-Johnson

Pete Barbrook-Johnson (biography)

How can we improve the often poor interaction and lack of genuine discussions between policy makers, experts, and those affected by policy?

As a social scientist who makes and uses models, an idea from Daniel Dennett’s (2013) book ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking’ struck a chord with me. Dennett introduces the idea of using lay audiences to aid and improve understanding between experts. Dennett suggests that including lay audiences (which he calls ‘curious nonexperts’) in discussions can entice experts to err on the side of over-explaining their thoughts and positions. When experts are talking only to other experts, Dennett suggests they under-explain, not wanting to insult others or look stupid by going over basic assumptions. This means they can fail to identify areas of disagreement, or to reach consensus, understanding, or conclusions that may be constructive.

For Dennett, the ‘curious nonexperts’ are undergraduate philosophy students, to be included in debates between professors. For me, the book sparked the idea that models could be ‘curious nonexperts’ in policy debates and processes. I prefer and use the term ‘interested amateurs’ over ‘curious nonexperts’, simply because the word ‘amateur’ seems slightly more insulting towards models!

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