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If We Want to Solve our Problems, We Need to Understand Them First: Join Map the System

by Daniela Papi-Thornton & Jake Wildman-Sisk

Tackling our greatest social and environmental challenges starts with an intimate understanding of the challenges themselves. It requires understanding the complexity of the problems, including their causes and effects, as well as the system in which those problems are stuck. It also requires an understanding of what solutions are already being tried and the kinds of resources that could be brought to bear to shift the system and begin to tackle the challenge.
Unintentionally, our education systems often encourage students to jump too quickly into designing solutions without first giving students the tools to understand the problems. In many ways, this style of entrepreneurial education perpetuates a belief that individual organizations can scale to solve these challenges alone, and puts emphasis on the “heropreneur”, a term used by Daniela Papi-Thornton in her report titled “Tackling Heropreneurship“.

While this rapid-action, silver-bullet, strategy can work for some less entrenched challenges, it usually doesn’t have the same impact on complex problems like homelessness, access to education, or the climate crisis. In fact, disjointed efforts, which are not based in a solid understanding of the problem can have the opposite effect, causing more harm than good. Therefore, educators hold the responsibility of teaching students how to understand problems before asking them to “solve” them, and also giving them the tools, accolades, and incentives to become system change leaders. Daniela Papi-Thornton’s recent TEDx talk highlights the opportunities available to educators who want to design programming that creates future system change leaders. Map the System (renamed from the Oxford Global Challenge) is one such opportunity and is designed to help students take on the task of understanding problems that are important to them before solving them.

It encourages students to research and actively engage with a chosen problem in order to understand it in depth.

In March 2017, RECODE and the Trico Charitable Foundation partnered with the Alberta Treasury Branch and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship to run the first Canadian edition of the then called Global Challenge. The Challenge is an ‘ecosystem-mapping’ competition designed to help students and recent alumni learn more about social and environmental issues that are important to them, from a local issue in their community to global and endemic challenges like racism, populism, or the growing refugee crisis. It encourages students to research and actively engage with a chosen problem in order to understand it in depth. They then identify “impact gaps”, areas where the solution landscape could be improved or lessons learned, which could be shared with those trying to take action. The funding Challenge winners receive is designed to help them proceed on their journey to learn more about the challenge, through conducting further on-the-ground research, obtaining a job in the sector, or some other means to learn more about their chosen issue. Ideally, by learning more about these challenges, students will find ways to take more effective action.
Our first year hosting this Canadian version of the Challenge brought together 10 schools from across the country to compete for a spot at the Oxford Global Finals. Students focused on problems that ranged from barriers to introducing geothermal energy in Indonesia to the prevention of child marriage in refugee camps, and from food security in coastal Indigenous communities to medical waste in Vancouver hospitals. The two winning teams from the Canadian final, Simon Fraser University and Mount Royal University, went on to compete at the Global Finals in Oxford. Both were top six entries, with Simon Fraser eventually winning the international final of The 2017 Global Challenge for their team’s research on reducing medical waste in Vancouver hospitals.
Both RECODE and Trico believe that entrepreneurial education and systems thinking are key skills required to address the 21st-century challenges we face. Canadian higher education institutions have a role to play in fostering these skills, which is why we plan to support these efforts by hosting the second annual Canadian version of the Challenge this school year.
Here’s what you need to know if you’re interested in signing your university or college up for the Canadian Map the System in the 2017/2018 school year.
If you’re an educator… in order to decide if it’s the right fit for your school, consider if you have someone on your team who has the bandwidth to manage this partnership, and if you’re able to run a local competition at your school to select the winning team. Ideally, applicants will find ways to incorporate the Challenge into the student pathway, via curriculum or other means, but this is not a requisite to participation. By signing your school up for this competition, you’ll have the opportunity to learn from and network with other social change educators across Canada.
If you’re a student considering joining the Challenge… you should consider entering if there’s a local or global challenge about which you would like to learn more, if you’re trying to find how you might get your foot in the door to have a high-impact career, or if you’re considering an entrepreneurial approach to social change but want to first understand the problem you hope to tackle. Winning teams will be supported to travel to Oxford next year to join the global final of the competition, and will be eligible to win funds to help them take the next step on their learning journey.
While it sounds simple and obvious, careful forethought might be the key to unravelling and improving our most complex social and environmental challenges. Likewise, the skills required to understand complex challenges are ones that we should be teaching our future leaders today. Map the System is designed with this in mind. We’re thrilled to be hosting it for a second year, and look forward to working with you and your institution should you be ready to join this year’s Challenge. If you’re interested, have questions, or want to know more, you can connect with Chad Lubelsky at

Jul 19, 2017 | Tags: ,