This first stage of System Mapping is all about ‘relational thinking’: i.e. ‘what is the system, how does it work, who is involved, and what are their relations and interactions and inter-connections’.

Step (A): Wider – Actors

The best way to start, from experience, is by visualizing and mapping what’s on the minds of the people: (this works best in real time discussion).   The flipcharts or whiteboards (larger the better) might start off messy, but sooner or later they can take shape as ‘relational mappings’. So, first sketch the agendas / problems / issues, using bubbles, arrows, cartoons, leaves or whatever works. Then, sketch the ‘actors’ / ‘stakeholders’ around a table (real or virtual), with their main relations and interactions: positive / negative, safe / risky, powerful / vulnerable, etc.

The picture shows typical actors in a typical Low-Carb city debate. Often it’s not easy to get everyone into an actual room, and the most powerful people stay away, so we follow up meetings with interviews where needed. These diagrams show 10-12 places around the table, not as fixed numbers, but as practical limits for interactive discussion. As the mapping develops, we find some issues are more about the external or global context: others are more internal and local. In cities, often the local government isn’t ‘running’ the city, but ‘running to keep up’ with the distant forces of finance or trade. To explore this we have to think ‘out-of-the-box’ with problematic or controversial issues of power, paranoia, corruption or expropriation.

For the Low-Carb city, first we have to debate the problem – is it about climate change, economic growth, new technology or finance? We have to draw some boundaries just to get started. Then we can begin mapping the main ‘actors’ and their interactions: governments, public services, communities, citizens, services, industry, finance, civil society and so on.

Step (B): Further – Factors

As we explore the actors and their relations around the table, there are different things going on. For our Low-Carb city, there’s a metabolism of energy, from primary supplies and conversion, to end uses and emissions. There’s an economic-energy metabolism, from investment to infrastructure, to markets and consumers: and so on. These are all under the heading of ‘factors’ – meaning things, institutions, technologies which all interact (aka ‘actants’). For each there’s generally an upstream supply side and ‘downstream’ demand side or impacts, in a ‘value-chain’ metabolism. And for human systems there’s always more than one level: we can map this with different domains, such as ‘social, technical, economic, environmental, political, cultural’ (‘STEEPC’ from the futurist toolkit).[i]

These layers can be customized to our problem, and drawn as bubbles, boxes, clouds or cycles. A ‘cloud view’ shows the overlaps between domains, and the overlaps or ‘trading zones’, e.g. ecological-economics. A ‘cycle’ view shows more of the ‘activity cycle’ or value-chain: the economic domain has a circular flow of money, or the environmental has a cycle of material flows. Within each domain there are hubs of activity, and peripheries of dependency and vulnerability. There are economic centres of wealth, political centres of power, or ecological keystone species.

Which factors and which domains to include, and how to arrange them? There’s nothing fixed about the STEEPCU scheme shown here: the point is to select the most relevant domains for the problem, with a balance between detail and practicality.


For the Low-Carb housing agenda: we include ‘upstream’ factors such as energy supply and house design / construction: and ‘downstream’ factors of well-being or climate emissions. There’s also an economic upstream-downstream, from investment to return: and a policy upstream-downstream, from objectives to outcomes.

Step (C): Deeper – domains

Now we can put together the domains which are most relevant, and look for the whole system effects, with links and interactions between them. We can visualize them in the form of circular layers, stacked up inside a sphere, like a translucent ball used by jugglers. This is just an image, but it helps to think about the whole system, and the inter-connections between domains. It highlights the principles such as recirculation (as in circular economy) or resilience (as in climate adaptation).

The Deeper City can be visualized as a physical layer (streets and buildings): a physical-human layer, (interactions between people and buildings): and a human-human layer, of conscious learning and thinking. Similar ideas come from ‘causal layer analysis’,[i] with surface level, structural, and mythic levels. The interaction between layers or domains comes up in the idea of a ’nexus’ , a hub of connections, e.g. a ‘food-energy-water’ nexus. If we look not just at tangibles, but the cognitive-conscious level, then we talk about a ‘connexus’ or ‘cognitive nexus’.

For the whole connexus, there is also a whole metabolism. There are hierarchy effects, where one domain controls or dominates others: for instance, finance tends to dominate ecosystems (until the next natural disaster. There is extraction of value by the elite, as shown at the top of the connexus. There is ‘externalization’ or dumping of negative impacts, shown at the bottom. The connexus needs to be opened and unpacked, as if opening a drawer full of maps. These images are just metaphors, but seem to be useful in exploring human systems.

In Low-Carb housing, there’s a technical domain of energy physics: an economic domain of markets and investments: a social domain of behaviour and welfare, and so on. At present, there are huge negatives: energy systems cause climate change, and market systems produce energy poverty. To change this, look for ‘wider’ synergies between all actors: ‘deeper’ synergies e.g. energy-ecology-social: and ‘further’ to the next steps.