Synthesis Maps | Gigamaps | The CanIMPACT Project

Strategic Innovation Lab has developed a repertoire of systems mapping methods and outputs to help understand and guide complex service design, social system design, and knowledge translation for complex systems research. Synthesis maps  are typically designed as communicative artifacts that translate multiple knowledge perspectives about social systems to illustrate the dilemmas and challenges within a complex system scenario. Synthesis maps are particularly effective in representing multi-level social systems such as are common in healthcare – indicating an outer boundary (e.g., national or provincial system), the service networks, agencies and specialized providers within a care context, for example.

The Gigamap technique was developed by Birger Sevaldson of the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, who sLab has collaborated with since 2011 in the development of systemic design methods and the RSD conference series. This process develops a strong architectural and descriptive approach to complex projects, which is pursued through studio work using a research through design (RTD) process

Gigamaps and synthesis maps look very similar as finished products. However they differ in their developmental processes. Both are rich images that visualize complex system problems, and both are used as design artifacts in similar domains (from health to public policy, from service experiences to social change). Both are used with stakeholders for advising, planning, and designing for social and systemic challenges (wicked problems).

  • Gigamaps are more "direct engagement in the relations of a system." Gigamaps employ a research through design (RTD) practice of engaging directly with a system problem and following the contours of the complexity as expressed in a design space.
  • Synthesis maps evolved from the SFI pedagogy necessary to train students in systems thinking and to learn both system formalisms and systemic design for complex multistakeholder problems. Synthesis maps are typically designed as communicative artifacts that translate multiple knowledge perspectives about social systems to illustrate the dilemmas and challenges within a complex system scenario.

The SFI maps have been developed in half-term courses guided by design-led field research and extensive secondary source references to build descriptive system maps as a mapping of territory for systemic design of the social systems of concern. sLab also develops a core systems theory or methodology within the SFI maps as a means of pattern and leverage. Because the process sLab teaches is developed more as a synthesis of evidence and is informed by theory, their process is better considered as a Synthesis Map.

The typical synthesis map process requires a small team of graduate research assistants trained in the method, directed by a faculty advisor in a collaborative design process. Working through a series of drafts on paper and electronic modes, the team starts with a preliminary map, often sketched using graphic recording and rough free skecthes, followed by an integration of core concepts. Iterative refinements are made with sponsors/stakeholders to interactively integrate their insights and proposals with the design team's system maps. The move toward final synthesis and visualization progresses through studio workshops and team design and critique. 

The CanIMPACT Project (Canadian Team to Improve Community-Based Cancer Care Along the Continuum) is a multidisciplinary pan-Canadian program studying how to improve cancer care to patients in the primary care setting. Funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for 5 years (2013–2018, Grant no. 128272) the project was led by Dr. Eva Grunfeld, Director of Research at U Toronto's Dept of Family and Community Medicine.  For the CanIMPACT synthesis map project, the sLab team (Jones, Smriti Shakdher, Prateeksha Singh) prepared two synthesis maps to reflect the discovered insights from the multi-year investigation: a clinical system map and a patient-centred map informed by the CanIMPACT Patient Advisory Council. The resulting maps were published (a first for a system map method) in Current Oncology and presented at the first Canadian Partnership Against Cancer (CPAC) conference, and MedicineX 2017.

The CanIMPACT Project included:

  • A domain and literature review: A scoping review of the CanIMPACT study and its references was conducted. Continuous searches informed emergent questions for representing mapping decisions.
  • Expert interviews and content analysis, with Visual Notetaking: The CanIMPACT qualitative study, the Casebook survey of cancer initiatives, and administrative data substudy reports were analyzed, guided by interviews with study area leads.
  • Knowledge Synthesis to design Maps in stages: In collaborative sessions, maps were hand-sketched to represent salient findings drawn from content analyses.
  • Peer critique of electronic and print Maps: Structured critiques of the maps were held with the CanIMPACT and PAC experts at key stages of map development.
  • Iterative Map Design: The clinical map was developed first, in stages that adhered to the method. The necessity for a patient-centred map was discovered during the peer critique step.

This project exemplifies well how the synthesis mapping approach can lead to high-quality representations of insights from complex research, how deeply deliberated discourses within a clinical or social research team can be articulated as systemic models, and how new knowledge production can be further developed toward strategic design outcomes such as program strategies and policy interventions. 

For further information on synthesis mapping and the CanIMPACT Project, please visit

CanImpact Synthesis Map: Patient Experience of Primary Care in the Cancer Continuum A Relationship-Centred View of Breast and Co
CanImpact Synthesis Map: Canadian Clinical System of Primary Care in the Cancer Continuum
Monday, October 23, 2017 - 2:15pm
Lab Member: 
Peter Jones

Relating Systems Thinking & Design 5: Leading Thinkers Converge in Toronto

Liz Sanders presents at RSD5 Symposium
Monday, October 31, 2016 - 2:45pm

The fifth Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD5) symposium took place at OCAD University and MaRS Discovery District from October 13 to 15, 2016. The symposium presented work from the developing intersection of systems perspectives and strategic design known as systemic design. RSD focused this year’s event on systemic design for social complexity, such as the design problems of sustainable business, good governance, social services, urban design, healthcare services, human flourishing, and the intersections of these domains. RSD featured leading presenters from around the world with significant research, validated applications, and engaging workshops.

Peter Jones (RSD5 lead chair and OCAD U professor, Design for Health and Strategic Foresight and Innovation) notes: “We are continuing a tradition started a few years ago in Oslo. RSD combines the deep legacies of systems and cybernetics with today’s emerging design practices and teaching to share in compelling talks and intimate dialogue to bear on many of the complex human challenges we all face in an over-modernized civilization.”

The 2016 symposium featured five keynote speakers:

  • Humberto Maturana, founder of the Santiago School of cognitive science, and originator of the sciences of autopoiesis, evolutionary drift, and structural coupling;
  • Aleco Christakis, (with Maria Kakoulaki), visionary of science of dialogic design, leading thinker in social systems design since the Club of Rome’s “Predicament”;
  • Paul Pangaro, a visionary in design cybernetics, now heading the Interaction Design program at Detroit’s CCS design school;
  • Erik Stolterman, Chair of Informatics at Indiana University, co-author of The Design Way (with Harold Nelson), editor of MIT Press Design Thinking/Design Theory series;
  • Liz Sanders, founder of MakeTools, a leader in generative design thinking, human-centered design, and emerging practice, and co-author of Convivial Toolbox.

RSD is an annual symposium presented by the Systemic Design Research Network, an organization that advances the integration of systems thinking and design, to help individuals and organizations take action towards improving the wicked, interconnected challenges facing our planet. For more information visit:

More about Design for Health:

ID Sustainability & Systems Thinking Lecture

Wednesday, March 9, 2016 - 11:30pm to Thursday, March 10, 2016 - 2:00am

Special lecture event on Sustainability & Systems Thinking

Date: Wednesday 9th March,  6.30-9 pm,

Location:  205 Richmond Street, Room 320 (3rd Floor)

Our three exciting guest lecturers are: 

  1. Jason Dressler, co-director of Toronto based brothers Dressler Design Studio- APPLIED SUSTAINABILITY IN DESIGN & LOCAL MANUFACTURING Brothers Dressler use local, reclaimed, found, ecologically friendly and responsibly harvested materials, working to promote a return to local manufacturing and resources. Our design process uses as much of each material as possible, giving cut-offs and waste streams new life as creative new products. As fine craft furniture makers specializing in sustainable design it is our purpose to make furniture that offers the opportunity for the conscious consumer to purchase goods that affect positive change.
  2. Wesley Gee - Director of Sustainability at The Works Design Communications Ltd. _ BUSINESS FOCUS ON SUSTAINABILITY Expertise: Sustainability / Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy, strategy and action planning; advisory services and project/program management; reporting and communication; stakeholder mapping, engagement and collaboration; materiality analysis and risk/reputation management; strategic community investment; environmental management and climate change.
  3. Bernhard Dietz - SYSTEMS DESIGN & SUSTAINABILITY Branding and Corporate Design Specialist, Sustainability Change Agent, Visual Sense Maker, formerly working at Bruce Mau Design Expertise: Systems Design, Communication, Product Design, Life Cycle assessment, Design Planning, User-centered Design, Design Research
Venue & Address: 
205 Richmond Street Room 320

Relating Systems Thinking and Design 4 Symposium

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 4:00am to Thursday, September 3, 2015 - 4:00am

RSD4 Symposium – Banff 2015

At the Frontiers of Systemic Design

Join us in accelerating the convergence of design, social, and technology fields toward co-creating humanized systems. We invite participants, presenters and students from across practices, disciplines and design fields to register for the RSD4  Symposium, Banff, Canada, September 1-3, 2015.

The RSD series has advanced an agenda for a strong integration between systems thinking and design to take on the most important challenges facing our planet today. The theme of this year’s symposium is At the Frontiers of Systemic Design.

Hosted for the first time in North America, with sponsorship from the Government of Alberta, we are reaching out to new audiences while maintaining the ethos of a small and intimate lightweight symposium.

To celebrate the interplay between theory and practice, each day of the symposium iterates between peer-reviewed talks and collaborative workshops that build skills and take on real world challenges enabled by systemic design approaches.

We have confirmed 5 extraordinary keynote speakers over the three day event: 

  • Mugendi M’Rithaa, Cape Peninsula University of Technology. South Africa
  • Don Norman, University of California, San Diego, US
  • Lia Patrício, University of Porto, Portugal
  • Ann Pendleton-Jullian, The Ohio State University and Georgetown University, US
  • Ursula Tischner, Agency for Sustainable Design, Cologne, Germany

Registration for the 3 day event costs CAD $240, which includes breakfast, lunch and snacks. There is an optional symposium dinner for an additional CAD $60. The Banff Centre provides for a limited number of reserved accommodations onsite. Other hotel options and travel details are provided on our Venue – Traveler Tips page. We encourage early registration as both onsite accommodation and symposium tickets will sell out fast!

We look forward to being with you in September.

The RSD4 Organizing Committee

Alex, Birger, Peter, Jodi, and our growing team of support

Venue & Address: 
Banff Centre 107 Tunnel Mountain Dr. Banff, Alberta, Canada      
http://Registration is now open!

Call for Submissions - Relating Systems Thinking & Design 2013

Call for Submissions - Relating Systems Thinking & Design 2013
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - 8:30pm

With presentations by former Strategic Forseight and Innovation students Josina and Jonathan Veale as well as David Ing

Theme: Emerging Contexts for Systemic Design

The second RSD symposium will take place at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) 9-11 October, 2013. The symposium is a meeting of roughly 50 researchers and scholars committed to developing discourses and methods in this emerging field, with a schedule of presentations and workshops being held at AHO.

We also invite up to 100 non-presenting participants who may wish to attend and participate in discussions and dialogue as part of this developing international community of practice and scholars. The symposium is free of charge, but is hosted as a working conference without the typical amenities of a revenue-based and sponsored event.

Interested applicants are invited to view details and register at the symposium website:

The schedule includes up to 50 presenters in 5 thematic tracks. The schedule consists of a day of workshops and two days of presenter discussions based on reviewed and accepted abstracts.

October 9: Workshops
October 10 - 11: Symposium

Overview of Symposium:
The emerging renaissance of systems thinking in design responds to the increasing complexity in all challenges faced by designers and transdisciplinary innovators. Our worlds have become too complex for linear and goal-driven management, resulting in hopelessly complicated social, economic, and political systems. The global demand for sustainability, democratic economies, and the emerging social arrangements for better education, employment, and development have become too complex for conventional thinking.

In re-examining the relationship of systems thinking to design we believe it possible for systems thinking and design praxis to develop the foundations for new, interrelated practices. This synergistic relationship will launch a new generation of systems-oriented thinkers empowered with the creativity and perspectives of design thinking. As educators and researchers, we also seek better theoretical foundations and rigor in design thinking.

Organizing Committee
Birger Sevaldson, AHO, Institute of Design http://
Harold Nelson, University of Montana http://
Peter Jones, OCAD University, Toronto
Alex Ryan, Ph.D.
Linda Blaasvaer, AHO



Venue & Address: 
Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO) Maridalsveien 29 Oslo, Norway