Synthesis Maps | Gigamaps

Project status: 

Synthesis Maps   2022  2021 |  2020  2019  |  2018  |  2017  |  2016   |  2015 + prior   |  References  

What are Synthesis Maps and Gigamaps?

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. Below are examples of sLab's faculty-led, funded research project results.

In the page series named annually, we present systemic design research and coursework examples drawn each season from project work completed in the Systemic Design course from 2011 through 2022, guided by OCADU professors Peter Jones and Jeremy Bowes.

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." Sevaldson explains Gigamaps in a well-regarded paper and in RSD proceedings1,2. 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 multi-stakeholder 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. 

Due to the coursework setting in which these are trained, often without access to direct stakeholders, we employ generative and ethnographic research to design. These are then "first phase" system maps that synthesize research, perspectives, and design problematics into coherent visual narratives that make sense to stakeholders knowledgeable in these domains. Our hope with student work is to demonstrate the possibilities of synthesis maps to reveal systemics and propose design of future options. These become proposals for continuing with in-depth stakeholder work such as published by sLab to date.They serve to communicate complex concepts visually for service design, and as descriptive artifacts for presentation in conferences and publications. 

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. SFI student teams have also delineated sophisticated dementia journeys, evolution of health equity, and the developmental pathways of childhood obesity.  

The Gigamap technique was developed by BIrger Sevaldson of the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, whom we have collaborated with since 2011 in the development of systemic design methods and the RSD conference series. Observations of the AHO Gigamap Gallery shows their process develops a strong architectural and descriptive approach to complex projects, which are pursued through studio work using a research through design (RTD) process. 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. We also develop a core systems theory or methodology within the SFI maps as a means of pattern and leverage. Because the process we teach is developed more as a synthesis of evidence and is informed by theory, our process is better considered as a Synthesis Map. (Examples of both are shown and linked.)

Canadian Governance in the Digital Era: A Synthesis Map

A recent synthesis map was created by an sLab team for the SSHRC-sponsored Canadian Governance in the Digital Era, with the resulting map published in the March 2015 issue of Canadian Government Executive. The map draws on both foresight and system thinking models within a horizon scan of trends, values and weak signals for future innovation patterns:

How Might Canadian Governance Be Transformed in the Digital Era?
(cc 2015) Kelly Kornet, Goran Matic, Peter Scott, Jill Sharrock, Stuart Candy, Peter Jones, Patricia Kambitsch, Greg Van Alstyne.

Synthesis Map Process

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, we start with a preliminary map, often sketched using graphic recording and rough free sketches, 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.

CanIMPACT Synthesis Maps

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, our sLab team (Jones, Smriti Shakdher, Prateeksha Singh).  Two synthesis maps were prepared 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.

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 scoial 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. The two maps are presented as follows:

Cancer Care Pathways (CanIMPACT & sLab)

CanImpact Synthesis Map: Canadian Clinical System of Primary Care in the Cancer Continuum.
Citation: Jones, P.H., Shakdher, S. & Singh, P. (2017). Synthesis maps: Visual knowledge translation for the CanIMPACT clinical system and patient cancer journeys. Current Oncology, 24 (2), 129–134.


Patient Experience of Primary Care in the Cancer Continuum (CanIMPACT & sLab)

CanImpact Synthesis Map: Patient Experience of Primary Care in the Cancer Continuum:
A Relationship-Centred View of Breast and Colorectal Cancer Survivorship

Studies from the CanIMPACT project have been published in the same issue as a special edition guest edited by Dr. Grunfeld. The summative workshop at which the maps were presented, with conclusions and recommendations, is found online at NLM and Current Oncology: Grunfeld, E., & Petrovic, B. (2017). Consultative workshop proceedings of the Canadian Team to Improve Community-Based Cancer Care Along the Continuum. Current Oncology, 24(2), 135.

Discussion of the “two solitudes” or disconnected practices of primary care and oncology are described in Eva’s second article in the same issue: Grunfeld, E. (2017). The two solitudes of primary care and cancer specialist care: is there a bridge? Current Oncology, 24(2), 69.

The Current Oncology article presents a simplified summary of the design action research process we used in developing the synthesis maps in the CanIMPACT project. These steps would be representative of an evidence-driven approach, and while not all synthesis maps are models of system knowledge from evidence, it is a well-suited technique for a range of complex knowledge problems in healthcare, medicine, community and mental health, education, social policy, and other institutional and policy sectors.

  • 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 Note-taking. 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.


  1. Sevaldson, B. (2011). GIGA-Mapping: Visualisation for complexity and systems thinking in design. Nordes, (4).
  2. ––––––––. (2015) Gigamaps: Their role as bridging artefacts and a new sense sharing mode. In: Relating Systems Thinking and Design (RSD4) 2015 Symposium, 1-3 Sep 2015, Banff, Canada. Available at