The complexity of citizen experience: ‘system effects’ mapping for intervention design
System Effects is a methodology developed by UNSW Canberra Researcher Dr. Luke Craven to explore the ‘user’ or citizen experience of complex phenomena, such as climate resilience, poor health, or job market access. The method is proving to be useful for citizen and user engagement worldwide, and Luke details its varied applications and processes for us here.
The System Effects methodology emphasises the varied nature of social phenomena, their causes and consequences, while at the same time giving policymakers tools to understand the complex nature of how those varied factors manifest at the community — or population — level. System Effects can be used to support the design, implementation and evaluation of interventions aimed at changing the structure of complex adaptive systems to drive particular outcomes. By beginning from the ‘user’ understanding of complex systems, the methodology helps to re-centre lived experience in social science and policymaking practice.
UNSW has produced a great video summary of the method, and Luke writes about it in detail for Power to Persuade below:
Developed as part of my PhD that focused on developing new tools to understand and address food insecurity from a systems-based perspective, System Effects is increasingly being applied to a whole range of issues by national, state, and local governments across the world. For example it is being used to:
- understand the barriers to job market entry in Oslo, in partnership with the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV);
- understand the systemic impact of disaster events in Sydney, in partnership with Resilient Sydney and the NSW Office of Emergency Management;
- support social workers to deliver systemic care to persons facing homelessness in Newcastle, UK, in partnership with Newcastle City Council;
- support the development of policy to prevent food borne disease in Cambodia, in partnership with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and USAID, and;
- support effective environmental stewardship in New York, in partnership with the US Forest Service.
The above is just a snapshot of the diversity of issues and decision contexts in which System Effects is currently used, with a more detailed picture in the map below.
Figure: Where is System Effects being used?
But what exactly is System Effects and how does it work? The methodology draws on soft systems methodology, fuzzy cognitive mapping, and graph theoretical analysis. Its objective is to aggregate and quantify participant-generated system models of a given problem (e.g. poor health or malnutrition) and its determinants to inform intervention design.
The participant-led approach begins by asking research participants to visually map or depict the range of variables they perceive be causes of the problem at hand; drawing arrows between the variables to indicate causality.
Once completed, the researcher creates an adjacency matrix for each participant response, using a coding scheme to ensure consistency in the factors present across the community. The foundation of this method is that individual participant maps represent network diagrams, with the barriers between them acting as ‘nodes’ and the connections between them as ‘edges’ or links.