Systems maps are a credible starting point for a conversation about improving our quality of life.

MEASURING AND UNDERSTANDING the quality of life for Hawaii’s people is a complex task, and this complexity often frustrates attempts to improve it. One way to make this complexity more manageable is to visualize the factors that improve or degrade our quality of life as a web of interconnected factors and behaviors. It’s called a systems map.

Influencing a single key factor can have a major effect on an entire system.”

Nonprofits, corporations, governments and scholars have used systems maps for decades to understand complex situations and to find ways to improve them. Just as stepping back from an intricate painting changes your understanding of the painting, stepping back from the day-to-day events in Hawaii can help us see obstacles and opportunities in a new light. Sometimes, a map will help you realize that influencing a single key factor can have a major effect on an entire system.

On this site, you will find systems maps and issue maps that try to explain parts of life in Hawaii. These maps are imperfect works in progress, but those who contributed to them believe that systems mapping can be a powerful tool for solving public problems in Hawaii.

The maps were started during discussions with a variety of contributors and then refined using interviews with them and other Hawaii residents. The final maps were created by Robert Ricigliano, a veteran systems thinker and mapper based at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

The systems maps cover three key areas in Hawaii: governance and public policy; the economy; and social and cultural factors. These three maps are combined in a single overall map which shows how the maps are all connected. Smaller issue maps in this report cover civic engagement, the environment and health.

Clearly, we could have added more factors to these maps and more maps, creating more complexity, but we struck a balance between focusing on major elements and reflecting the more intricate reality of life in Hawaii.

Please take the time to study these maps. The more we understand about quality of life in the Islands, the more we can do to improve it.

How Systems Maps Work

Systems maps are one way to help explain something as intimate as a small organization or as big and complex as a society such as Hawaii.

When you look at a systems map, you see that one factor influences another, which reinforces another and so on until the loop closes in on itself and sometimes becomes self-perpetuating. Different loops interact to help explain how a community thrives or declines. One way to improve life in Hawaii is to understand how the parts fit together and find ways to break out of negative-feedback loops and to reinforce virtuous loops.

Systems maps try to prevent simple problem solving. In a complex society, it is a bad idea to break complex situations in easy-to-manage chunks and then try to solve the isolated problems. Life in Hawaii is characterized by constantly evolving relationships within our society. Trying to fix one piece may not make things better if it fails to account for these connections.

A New Way to View Persistent Problems

HAWAII’S QUALITY OF LIFE  is pretty good by most measures, but even paradise has its problems, and some of those problems are stubbornly persistent. An economy dependent on tourism despite our decades-long commitment to diversify; chronic disease running rampant in our most vulnerable communities, in the face of nation-leading health-coverage policies; a cost of living moving steadily out of reach, in spite of investments in affordable housing and better pay.

Sometimes we make temporary headway on such issues, but then see conditions gradually revert back. Why do they seem intractable?

Human beings have a tendency to compartmentalize problems. … Systems mapping helps us compensate for natural shortcomings in our thinking.”

Systems thinking offers an explanation and, in the best case, fresh solutions. The systems are the series of inter-related causes, effects, and “feedback loops” – that is, effects unintentionally turned back into causes. Thinking in systems can open our minds to new and more durable solutions.

Human beings have a tendency to compartmentalize problems and gravitate toward solutions based on linear, cause-effect understanding.  If Hawaii suffers from low voter turnout, then investing more in get-out-the-vote advertising should solve the problem. Yet it doesn’t, both because other factors are at play (ease of registration, a lack of information, bland candidates) and because the solution (government-sponsored advertising) could actually deepen cynicism about government and discourage voting.

Systems mapping helps us compensate for natural shortcomings in our thinking. It zooms in on those elements of a problem that we often fail to examine: solutions that are, in fact, part of the problem, or unseen ways that seemingly separate issues affect each other.

The maps on this site are visualized theories, not representations of fact. They depict hypothetical relationships that are difficult, if not impossible, to prove scientifically. They are intended to help us consider things we often miss, not to capture every factor contributing to a problem, emphasizing “feedback loops” over well-known, cause-effect relationships. This is not to suggest that linear causes are unimportant, but systems maps focus on loops precisely because linear causes are so familiar.

At their best, systems maps point to “leverage points” – new opportunities for action that can ripple through a system to produce durable impact. Examples of such leverage points are highlighted alongside the maps and a group of local systems thinkers is committed to ongoing development of maps, and leverage points, to improve Hawaii’s quality of life. With more work, and more voices contributing to them, we believe systems mapping can be a useful tool for communal problem solving.

As an island community, we are defined by our connections and interdependence: the six degrees of separation reduced to one or two. We hope the art and science of systems mapping can help lay bare some of our less-obvious connections, and help us get new traction on our most intractable problems.