A New Visual Language for Networks

By Christine Capra, Greater than the Sum and Sarah Ann Shanahan, The RE-AMP Network

Networks are complex ecosystems of people and relationships. Social impact networks seek to leverage the often invisible dynamics of those relationships in ways that we’re still learning to understand and that are hard to represent using organizational and hierarchical models.

One new tool that has recently emerged to support this new way of seeing is social system mapping. The RE-AMP Network and Greater than the Sum have partnered to leverage these tools to build a map in order to see the Network’s system as a whole as well the patterns that emerge through its interactions. Social system mapping is a collective learning journey that uses new data-gathering and data-visualization tools.  A social system map itself is an iterative, emergent mash-up of social network analysis, system mapping, asset mapping and ripple-effect mapping. It always starts with and builds upon network actors and their existing and potential interpersonal relationships. As the network’s collective sense-making capacity deepens, the mapped dimensions will expand to include organizations, systemic forces, network goals, strategies, relevant flows of knowledge and other resources, assets, impacts and other dynamics that live in a generative social impact network. Once set up, the new data-gathering and data-visualization platforms used enable network members themselves to maintain and update the relevant relationship data that is mapped, enabling the map to evolve and deepen over time as the social ecosystem develops and becomes more self-aware.

A social system map can become a transformational tool in that it:

  1. Provides greater transparency about network relationships and resource flows, supporting agency and distributed leadership.
  2. Enables members to discover as-yet untapped potential within the network, through identifying potential connections and potential actions that can’t otherwise be seen and may take years to become evident otherwise.
  3. Enables collective insight into the structure and patterns in the ecosystem that help identify what’s working, what’s making things work, what could work better.
  4. Highlights gaps in the network structure, so that members can design interventions and see their relative effectiveness over time.
  5. Is an inherent intervention through the process of collectively defining the relevant data to be gathered, prompting people to consider and report back on dynamics generally not considered relevant.
  6. Becomes a tool for expanding our collective mental-maps. Helping networks ‘see’ their interconnectedness and feel and live into this more interdependent reality, they become more insightful about the complexity of their systems.
  7. Helps members see and gain insight into the ‘greater whole’, beyond their own areas of focus and their own ego-networks with-in that greater whole.
  8. Is a sensitizing tool – along the lines of Michael Quinn Patton’s idea of ‘sensitizing concepts’. It sensitizes network members to a more eco-systemic paradigm and more effective ways of catalyzing transformation through their collective works.

Many networks have begun using social system maps to help members see the potential ecosystems they’re trying to develop, to make more strategic connections, and to target their convening efforts where there is the most interest and energy. 

RE-AMP is also using our social system map to be more intentional about recruitment and to accelerate new member’s understanding of what the network really is and how to be in integral part of it. 

And because of the RE-AMP Network’s maturity and systemic focus, we’ve been able to dig deeply into understanding the underlying patterns and systemic dynamics in ways we couldn’t have early on in our evolution. That, combined with our ongoing exploratory work with social system mapping pioneer Christine Capra of Greater than the Sum puts the RE-AMP Network at the forefront of this new network learning tool.

Christine says that because of:

  • Our abundance of historical data about network members and network activities,
  • The clear and broadly understood systemic analyses that inform our goals,
  • Our deep learning in what networks need to thrive and generate impact,

we’re able to push the boundaries of what is possible with these types of maps, making the RE-AMP network to be a rich test-case for deepening the practice of Social System Mapping. 

We’ve already gained a lot of value from our social system map and Christine says our map has pushed her thinking further than any other map she’s worked on – and yet we all feel like we’ve just barely begun this journey. 

RE-AMP staff and members intend to continue working with Christine to explore what this new kind of mapping can make visible and how that new visibility can help to make our network more aware and wise and impactful. 

Ways we invite you to join us as we continue on this learning journey:

Learn more about Social System Mapping here 

Join the Network Thinking Academy to learn more about ecosystems mindsets

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