Techniques- Systems Mapping

Strategic Futures Analysis Techniques: Systems Mapping


The object of this part of the course is act as an introduction to systems mapping. While some of the techniques are relatively straightforward, some require specialist skills and we will not attempt to describe them in detail.

When thinking about the future it is critical to think about the interactions between the elements that shape the future – the system. Systems Mapping is a way of seeing and talking about ‘things’ that helps us to better understand both now and the future.

Systems Mapping covers a broad range of tools and techniques ranging from rich pictures and mind maps that look at the components of the future, causal loop diagrams that look at relationships between components, and system dynamic models that give quantitative results for the behaviour of a system. This page and the associated course are intended to give an introduction to systems. Specialist knowledge is required to develop more complex qualitative or quantitative models.

Rich pictures

Rich pictures consist of sketches or ‘doodles’ with links between them to show the high level components and structure of a system. The use of text in rich pictures is generally restricted to clarifying pictures and describing links.

They can be used to help define the scope of a futures project as part of defining the focal question. They can also be used as a starting point for more detailed systems analysis in which the interactions between trends and drivers can be identified. However the greatest value often comes from the process of discussion involved rather than the resulting picture generated.

Causal loop diagram

Causal loop diagrams visualise the elements (nodes) of a system and the relationships between them. They are generally used to give a qualitative output. There is an example of a diagram in the further material on page 2.

The relationships between the elements of the system can be either positive or negative.

For a positive link if the first element increases the second will also increase and if the first reduces the next will also reduce, as below:

For a negative link if the first element increases the second will reduce and vice versa, as below:

A number of links can combine to form a loop in a diagram. The causal loop can be either reinforcing or balancing. Reinforcing loops will strengthen the initial assumption and can lead to exponential increases or decreases. Balancing loops will contradict the initial assumption and can lead to a plateau being reached. A simple example of how these can combine is shown below:

System dynamic models

System dynamics dates from the 1950s. It gives a quantitative output to the behaviour of systems over time. It can be used to model both current and potential future systems and there are now a number of software tools available to support modelling.

The key difference to a causal loop diagram is that values are added to the system. These are:

  • Stocks – these are the values of the elements of the model (customers, money, oil, flights… etc) that could increase or decrease over time.
  • Flows – cause a change in the value of the elements in the model.

    The next technique gives more information on modelling.


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