Ecosystems thinking for design in government and non-profit sectors — the basics (1/2)

A tiled collage of 9 black and white images showing every-day life from different angles and perspectives.
Images from Unsplash; Sean Benesh, Charles Deluvio, Geran de Klerk, Dave Michuda, Artem Maltsev, Laura Connelly, Tony Sebastian, Jessica Delp, Keisuke Higashio.

This article is Part 1/2 . Part 2 shows what ecosystems thinking could look like in action. Part I covers the basics:

  • What is an ecosystem
  • Why is ecosystems thinking important
  • How to map ecosystems
  • What to do with ecosystems
  • Ecosystem resources

Interconnectivity, wicked problems and empowered citizens are all driving governments to change the way they work. The systemic nature of today’s challenges makes this task much more complex than the government reforms of previous generations. […] To engage the vastly more complex problem sets of this century, systems approaches will have to supplant traditional capabilities.

From Transactional to Strategic: systems approaches to public service challenges

What is an ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a network of interconnected systems. It’s a system of organizations, people, technology, platforms, and content that are linked and interdependent.

In a government or non-profit context, an ecosystem is a topic or topics that your organization’s services relate to.

The concept of ecosystem can seem abstract, so let’s explore the topic of recycling as an example.

Recycling as a topic has its own ecosystem (or many ecosystems depending on who is approaching it and for what purpose). At the very basic level, it can be made up of a number of ‘actors’ including:

  • Non-profit organizations
  • For-profit organizations
  • Different levels of government — federal, provincial, regional, municipal
  • Media channels
  • Individual or community experts on the topic

Each of these actors contributes to the recycling ecosystem. They might publish content in different formats online and all this information contributes to people’s understanding (or misunderstanding) of what ‘recycling’ is.

If you want to see what a recycling ecosystem might look like, jump to Part 2 of the series.

Why is ecosystems thinking important?

While organizations are still designing and optimizing their specific products and services, that is not how real people often experience the world. Jorge Arango explains it perfectly in his book Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places:

We don’t experience products or services in a void; we experience them in contexts.

Ecosystems of information need to be designed for findability and understanding across different systems and organizations. When the ecosystems are not designed this way, people are not able to find or understand the information they need.

As a result:

  • people are frustrated
  • people make mistakes
  • organizations do not meet their goals
  • society suffers due to mistakes.

Peter Morville expands on the phenomenon of contextual connectedness in his book Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything:

The information age amplifies connectedness. … Our organizations are ecosystems, literally. And while each community of organisms plus environment may function as a unit, the web of connections and consequences extends beyond its borders.

And “connectedness has consequences”; “that which optimizes one part of the system necessarily undermines the system as a whole”.

Since one of the essential qualities of ecosystems is that their elements are interconnected and affect one another, there is a possibility of unintended consequences. These unintended consequences can cause a lot of friction for users and organizations.

In the article From Transactional to Strategic: systems approaches to public service challenges, the authors Justin W. Cook and Piret Tõnurist outline the following benefits of systems thinking:

Applying a systemic lens to complex problems is useful to map the dynamic of the system underpinning it, how the relationship between system components affect its functioning, and what interventions can lead to better results.

Aside from helping you identify immediate sources of friction and possible intervention, there are many other reasons why systems thinking is important to ecosystems of information:

  1. From a business continuity and ability-to-withstand-change perspective:

Mutualistic relationships can help buffer partners against extreme conditions, open new niches for both partners, and amplify the baseline of resource acquisition.

2. From an efficiency and engagement perspective:

When you consider the system, you start to see opportunities to connect things that didn’t seem related. That leads to finding efficiency in processes and engagement with the people who benefit from what you create.

3. From a seamless experience perspective:

When different media and different contexts are tightly intertwined, no artifact can stand as a single isolated entity. Every single artifact becomes an element in a larger ecosystem. All these artifacts have multiple links or relationships with each other and have to be designed as part of one single seamless user experience process.

4. From an accessibility perspective:

You can have a greater impact by making systematic changes rather than individual changes, even often for the specific individual involved.

5. From an empathy perspective:

The things we produce in the systems we create have an experience. It can be a bad one. It can be a good one. Or it can do great harm. Remember that people — humans — are having an experience with your product in context with the rest of their life.

6. From a service perspective:

We are all connected by content! What government organizations publish on their websites and external platforms touches upon content from other organizations and groups that offer services related to the specific subject domain (broad topics of interest such as health, taxes, immigration, arts funding, trade and many others). […]To fail to see that content is part of a complex system of information is to fail to serve the people the government is meant to support.

7. From meeting-human-needs-through-helpful-content perspective:

Without being findable, clear, connected, and human, content cannot be truly helpful.

Drawing of Content design ecosystem in 5 layers, from bottom up: 1. Findable, 2. Clear, 3. Connected, 4. Human, 5. Helpful.
Drawing of Content design ecosystem in 5 layers, from bottom up: 1. Findable, 2. Clear, 3. Connected, 4. Human, 5. Helpful.
Pyramid of content design principles

8. From a foresight perspective:

Our ability to influence the future increases as we move from the level of events to that of vision.

How to map ecosystems

There is no one approach to how to map an ecosystem. If you want to see a range of examples within a recycling context, jump to Part 2 of the series.

In an article on mapping a better food future, Curtis Ogden states:

Systems mapping uses a variety of tools to help people develop a better understanding of the interactions, relationships and outcomes of different kinds of systems.

Basically, you could use a number of systems thinking and design tools to help you visualize the ecosystem. These tools include, but are not limited to:

  • domain maps
  • causal loop diagrams
  • process maps
  • structural map (showing essential elements of a system)
  • affinity maps
  • Venn diagrams
  • context diagrams
  • rich pictures

In their comprehensive review of how to adapt systems approaches to public service challenges, the authors Justin W. Cook and Piret Tõnurist emphasize that

the systems and design tools used will have their greatest effect when they are selected specifically to address the context, the problem, the timeline and the capacity of the organizations involved.

So the type of tool you choose should be informed by the problem you are trying to solve and the surrounding constraints:

  • Do you want to see the relationships?
  • Do you want to see the big picture?
  • Do you want to see how different parts of the system connect?
  • Do you want to zoom in to look at attributes of a system or compare various perspectives?
  • Do you have a day or a few months to do the exploration?

You could also end up with hybrid representations or some really simplified versions of any of the above.

These could take you anywhere from less than an hour to months of research and iterations to create.

Below are a few different methods to give you an idea of what is possible, from the more simple ones to put together to the most complex that would require specialized expertise and extensive stakeholder engagements.

An image with concentric circles representing different levels of context.
An image with concentric circles representing different levels of context.
Context diagram

Carrie Hane, the co-author of Designing Connected Content: Plan and Model Digital Products for Today and Tomorrow, has a great explanation of what domain modeling is:

What business are you in? Do you know? The best brands in the world know what business they are in — what domain they operate in. A domain model shows you what matters to people who care about your domain. It gets everyone away from constantly selling and towards creating connections with your audience, who then want to buy your products, make a donation, become an advocate, or join your community.

Here is an example of one from Policy Horizons on the topic of well-being.

Domain model made of many interconnected pink dots representing different aspects of well-being.
Domain model made of many interconnected pink dots representing different aspects of well-being.
Well-being domain model includes a number of contexts including Work, Health, Learning, Housing, Security, Financial security, Family life, Environment, and Social participation among others

Causal loop diagrams describe behaviour and effects of the system and are captured through arrows and labels.

A line drawing of 2 circles within a larger circle with arrows showing various relationships.
A line drawing of 2 circles within a larger circle with arrows showing various relationships.
Example of a causal loop diagram representing a particular system behaviour (an archetype) called “Accidental Adversaries”

In a Project manager’s guide to systems thinking: Part I, J. Alex Sherrer explains the value of causal loop diagrams:

They help us to highlight influences and causes-and-effects we might have missed, and they helps us to identify better options because we can visually see the relationships between options.

According to a definition of system maps provided by the Centre for Innovative Justice, they do not show individual steps in a process nor the future state of the system. Instead, system maps:

  • trace the sequence and cause and effect through a situation or system
  • show how situations, events and outcomes have more than one cause, and how looking at this can deepen understanding as to why an event or result happens, or why something recurs
  • help us reach our own views about what’s happening in a system
A detailed map of Supporting Justice System. It looks like a giant metro map with many dots and interconnected passages.
The Supporting Justice System Map developed by Centre for Innovative Justice and Paper Giant

This is an example of a map I created when developing a content strategy approach to build content capacity at the Canada Revenue Agency.

An ecosystem map of ideas that looks like a giant mind map made up of many different pieces.
A 2020 ecosystem map of ‘content quality’ at the Canada Revenue Agency.

The map captures essential elements of ‘content quality’ and breaks them down further into other supporting elements. The map is further colour coded to indicate “areas of opportunity” — blue, “work in progress” — light green, “questions” — pink, “key pieces to work on” — darker green, and “quotes” in yellow.

This ecosystem map is more of a mind map and includes ideas, people, industry research, and quotes from user research.

It looks messy and unapproachable at a glance, but it is a great tool to:

  • help document all the findings, constraints, questions, and ideas related to framing a problem
  • share with partners to help them see themselves as part of the ecosystem
  • begin a conversation with partners about what else might be missing
  • share user research findings in context
  • identify clusters or areas you might need to focus on based on the number of quotes associated with a particular element (for example)
A close up view of the ‘content quality’ ecosystem map.
A close up view shows different elements of the ecosystem interact with one another.

The most complex culmination of ecosystem maps is likely a synthesis map of a gigamap, similar to the one from OCAD University’s Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab).

A map that looks like a landscape drawing or a drawing showing geographic formation and different layers of the environment.
Gigamap of Canadian Governance in the digital era includes 3 time periods: Present — Government Ecosystem, Near 2020 — Digital Culture, Far 2030 — Governance Transformed. It also includes Waves of Change as well as Values and Norms that shape the vision, among other areas of reflection.

What to do with ecosystems

There are many ways you could use the ecosystem maps you develop.

Antonio Starnino, a Montreal-born designer, describes the benefits of system mapping in a concise and truly accessible manner:

A) Reality is messy and complex, things don’t go to plan

B) System maps help us to visually ‘see’ the messiness

C) They draw our attention to things we might not have been aware of, they can help us see differently

D) Maps can help explain why systems are ‘stuck’

E) They can also help us identify points of leverage

F) Systems maps invite participation

While systems thinking is an entire discipline in itself, and ecosystem mapping could be a huge undertaking, here are 9 specific approaches you could try, depending on your situation:

  1. Begin by asking questions that help you make sense of the ecosystem:
Image of 4 quadrants with different questions focused on People, Systems, Design and Risks.
4 groupings of questions include: 1 — People — Who will use the system? Where is the system? What affects the system? 2 — Systems — Who are the stakeholders? What are the elements? How does the system perform? 3 — Design — What are the needs? How can the needs be met? How well are the needs met? 4 — Risk — What is going on? What could go wrong? How can we make it better?

2. Use mapping as an exercise to help different stakeholders build shared responsibility:

Stakeholders often agree on where they are at the top of the iceberg, but fail to see the underlying systems structure that they are affecting and affected by. Developing a shared understanding of why the current reality exists, using something like a systems map, is essential to addressing this visible challenge. Developing a shared picture of what people want as well as of reality at a deep level enables stakeholders to experience their responsibility for the whole system not just their own role.

3. Assess your ecosystem maps against Government as a system rubric to see what actions (levers) might apply to the problems you are trying to solve.

Screenshot of Government as a system rubric.
Government as a system toolkit includes 7 essential activities along the horizontal axis: Influence, Engage, Design, Develop, Resoure, Deliver, Control. These activities are arranged along the vertical axis from ‘softer’ more collaborative power at the top, down to more formal government power at the bottom

4. Use frame-shifting strategies to ask questions that can lead to new opportunities. IDEO nature cards have some great suggestions for examining relationships and design of systems :

  • What opportunities exist for us within the structure of other places or organizations?
  • Are there keystones — people, places, or things — in our systems? What might we do to augment their effect? How do they stabilize other elements in the system?
  • Can we identify mutual benefits in an apparently competitive situation? Will any useful by-products emerge from our design? Might a short-term relationship become longer-term?
  • How might overabundance or scarcity affect us? Could we design to create a surge, and what impact might that have? What effect would timing have for a surge cycle?

5. Consider the systems from different perspectives, reconfiguring and creating new versions to visualize them. Try applying and calibrating different lenses to your ecosystem to get insights, these could include financial, economic, channel, risk, or time lenses.

6. Think about how to shift from product design to experience design

When every single artifact, be it content, product, or service, is a part of a larger ecosystem, focus shifts from how to design single items to how to design experiences spanning processes.

7. Use ecosystem maps to create a necessary mental shift in local leadership

Recogniz[ing] that local government is not the lowest form of government in an ecosystem of governments, but the highest form of coordination and advocacy for your community.

8. Explore MaRS Solutions Lab’s Periodic Table of Systems Change. It highlights the different elements needed to alter complex systems.

A set of letters in circles of different colours representing different elements of systems.
A set of letters in circles of different colours representing different elements of systems.
MaRS Solutions Lab Periodic Table of Systems Change. The model has 4 stages. 1 -pose a hypothesis (H) to what the problem might be. 2 - research (R) . 3 — test ideas (T). 4 — bring the solutions that work to the market (M). These 4 stages are combined with 3 supporting streams: Driving policy change (Po), Developing solutions (So) and Building capacity for change (Ca).

They provide an ever-green playbook for how to approach complex problems in 4 stages and 3 streams.

9. Think about how to move to a Systemic design practice.

Drawing of a systemic design practice along the axis of action and reflection.
Drawing of a systemic design practice along the axis of action and reflection.
Systemic design graphic — Alex Ryan. It includes 4 elements: Systems thinking, Design thinking, Systems practice, Design practice

Get inspired by a few of the systemic design patterns from Alex Ryan, VP Systems Innovation and Program Director MaRS Solutions Lab:

  1. Reconfigure stakeholder relationship networks and generate novel collaborations between unusual suspects.
  2. Expose the costs and risks of business as usual.
  3. Mobilize around a compelling and multi-faceted vision, often simultaneously advancing the health of people, profits, and the planet.
  4. Commit to slow, long-term systemic change while building momentum through rapid, tangible, local action.

Ecosystem resources

:: digital content specialist — passionate about open learning + inclusion + collaboration + systems + stewardship + learning design + reflective practice ::

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store