Headstream's News
November 18, 2023

Building a Systems Map

The process of understanding complicated, interconnected social challenges can be messy at first. When we embarked on the journey to understand teen wellbeing in today’s hyperconnected world, we knew we had to start by connecting many disparate pieces into a whole. This meant we had to geek out a bit and lean on a mathematical approach to understand how social technologies are impacting teenagers.

Building a Systems Map

The process of understanding complicated, interconnected social challenges can be messy at first. When we embarked on the journey to understand teen wellbeing in today’s hyperconnected world, we knew we had to start by connecting many disparate pieces into a whole. This meant we had to geek out a bit and lean on a mathematical approach to understand how social technologies are impacting teenagers.

The Headstream team created a causal loop systems map to synthesize our insights and to capture the unique interplay of the ecosystem around youth digital wellbeing.

What is a causal loop systems map? It is a diagram that consists of a set of nodes and edges. Nodes represent the variables and edges are the links that represent a connection or a relation between the two variables. Links denoted with a solid line indicate a positive relation (the factors change up or down together) and a dotted line denotes a negative relation (a change in the value of one factor changes the other factor in the opposite direction).

Systems maps may look complex and are sophisticated, but don’t run away. They are an effective method to understand how our different perspectives fit together and where we might focus and align our efforts to maximize our effectiveness.

Our Director of Research, Tony Salvador, PhD, finds systems maps particularly useful in distilling the essence of a challenge in a rapid and precise manner.

“Systems maps communicate a sometimes very large body of work relatively quickly. They carefully delineate our area of engagement and study — showing what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’. Finally, the causal connections highlight specific areas for potential intervention — to either reduce a harm or increase a benefit.”

— Tony Salvador

Through approaching teen wellbeing from a causal systems lens we were able to unify the insights, ideas, and learnings from the hundreds of different perspectives that our community of teens, technologists, and other experts shared. Individual voices and ideas are brought to life through the map. The process of creating the map helped Headstream identify the first six potential opportunity areas for the Headstream Accelerator. We brought those opportunity areas to two Big Thinks where a group of 50 collaborators empathetically, and nearly unanimously pointed us towards our two Accelerator Tracks: Building Wellbeing into the Digital World; and Reshaping Digital Experiences and Places.

At Headstream we believe Systems Thinking can create real transformational change by helping reveal connections and reactions we may not have instinctively considered.

“Systems mapping is a tool that forces parsimony and essence — it requires precise thinking that questions assumptions and illuminates previously invisible or muddy connections.”

— Tony Salvador

One of the beautiful, and daunting, parts of systems maps is that they are never complete and can always be improved. As we continue to learn about the additional layers of complexity and opportunity that technology has introduced into the tricky process of growing up we will continuously tweak the Headstream Systems Map. If you’d like to share an idea, please reach out, we are always excited to see how we can improve the next iteration.

If you are interested in learning more about applying to or supporting the Headstream Accelerator you can visit our Accelerator here.


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