System mapping for poverty reduction

Over the past few months I have used systems mapping and facilitation to help the City of Toronto to develop their next 4-year Poverty Reduction Strategy. 

The City of Toronto has many divisions and agencies which need to work together to tackle the systemic problems of poverty.  A change to transit services could affect a resident’s job and income, which affects their housing and food access, which affects their health, which leads to different service needs, which affects their transportation needs, and so on.  City staff and community members needed visualization and conversation to build a common “mental map” of these chains of cause and effect in a high-complexity social system.

This project with the Yonge Street Mission was an extension of my Master’s Research Project.  We started by enhancing the structure of the Poverty Reduction Model to connect systemic factors to the City government activities that alleviate poverty.  The cause-and-effect model needed to be displayed in a more readable format, so I designed five 36″x48″ posters showing the patterns in housing, food access, transit equity, employment, income support and other services.  (These are not yet published but you can click through to see the Housing system map below.)

Circular arrows showing systemic patterns of the housing market, development, quality, access and transitions.

An infographic poster about affordable housing, showing systemic cycles and issues. Simplified draft, copyright City of Toronto, 2019.

On this project I did lots of facilitation.  I planned and led an off-site meeting, to evolve the team’s criteria and spreadsheet for prioritizing hundreds of initiatives.  We organized a series of meetings to review the strategy elements, at which I introduced the system maps and captured feedback from City staff of all divisions.  I also showed diagrams from the Poverty Reduction Model to the Lived Experience Advisory Group, which asked some pretty tough questions from their perspective of living in poverty.

There were community consultations, for which I edited and laid out the guide and report.  To wrap up the project, I created an evaluation framework advising City staff how to use the system maps for assessing how any service will reduce poverty, contribute to systemic goals and meet equity group needs.  The system model and maps can also be used to find leverage points for intervention, tracing back from a surface issue to more fundamental factors, and suggesting opportunities for collective impact.

It was great to combine my recent learning about poverty reduction, systems modelling and graphic design with longtime skills of data structure design, facilitation, writing and editing.  The Poverty Reduction Strategy‘s 2019-2022 action plan will come to Toronto City Council soon.

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