Mapping Challenges

Oxford University’s Map the System competition teaches students to develop a deep understanding of social problems.
Mapping Grand Challenges

“MILLENNIAL AND POST-MILLENNIAL business students are engaged with the world and committed to making a difference,” observes Peter Drobac, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the U.K. “We find that the majority of business students coming to Saïd are either looking for an impact-focused career or a career that’s going to have meaning.”

Oxford Saïd—whose mission statement includes the goal of “tackling world-scale problems”—appeals to those students in part through programs and activities that show them how to bring about social and environmental change. One example is Map the System, an annual social enterprise competition that launched in 2017 with the goal of encouraging students to study the root causes of social ills by using systems thinking.

“In some social enterprise competitions, there’s a ‘shoot first, aim later’ ethos that assumes that, in a couple of months, students can devise game-changing solutions to really complex problems that people spend their whole lives working on,” says Drobac. “The winners might come up with an app that sounds good but in practice is not going to make a real difference in the world. Such an approach glosses over the need to deeply understand the problems they’re trying to solve.”

By contrast, teams that participate in Map the System find a social or environmental issue that they care about and take time to explore it so they can understand “the complexity, the interactions, and eventually the levers for change,” says Drobac. “We want social entrepreneurs to use the tools of entrepreneurship— creativity, innovation, and grit—to get at the root causes of problems and really shift the systems that are causing the problems in the first place. This allows them to come to a more nuanced understanding of the challenge and discover more robust solutions.”

Furthermore, students are encouraged to focus on problems that are close to home. “We don’t see teams of students from the U.S. wanting to solve food insecurity in Togo,” says Drobac. “We’re more likely to have students addressing problems in a geography and a context where they’ve got some lived experience. The winning team this year was from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. They were studying the wildfire crisis that’s fueled by a variety of factors, including climate change, land use dynamics, and public policies. Students don’t have to go halfway around the world to solve other people’s problems.”


On the face of it, Map the System is structured like many other student competitions. Once universities sign up to participate, they run competitions at their own institutions. The Skoll Centre provides a framework and a rubric for what successful student projects look like. “We’ve built out a kind of curriculum and guidebook for students and educators to help them understand what systems are and what systems maps look like so they have the skills and tools they need,” says Drobac.

Some partner institutions choose to use Map the System in a very focused way—for instance, as part of a course on social innovation. Others open their competitions to any student at the university. According to the rules, students at any level—from undergraduates to PhD candidates—can participate, and nonstudents can also join teams. “It creates a really fun mix,” says Drobac.

For the 2018–2019 competition, almost 1,200 teams participated in the opening rounds, nearly triple the number of teams that participated the previous year. In most cases, the winning teams from each university head to Oxford for the global finals. However, so many Canadian schools participate that Canada holds its own regional finals and sends only the top three teams from the whole country to the main event. This takes place over a long weekend and includes activities such as workshops and mixers designed to promote networking.

Map the System 2019 Winners

Students from Simon Fraser University present their analysis of the factors leading to the wildfire crisis
in British Columbia. Their team won the 2019 Map the System competition. Photo courtesy of the Skoll
Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.


During the semi-final and final rounds of the competition, teams present their research to a panel of experts—and this is where it’s particularly clear that Map the System is different from other social enterprise competitions. “Teams are not necessarily pitching their game-changing solutions,” explains Drobac. “They’re presenting a systems analysis and a systems map with a solutions landscape. What we emphasize is their understanding of the problem, not the solution.”

Winnings are relatively modest, as the top prize is £4,000 (about US$4,850). “We tell students that taking home the prize money isn’t the big win,” says Drobac. “The win is spending three days in Oxford with peers from all over the world who are doing amazing work. The win is building a community of changemakers.”

Funding for the program comes from a variety of sources, including several social impact organizations—these include the Skoll Foundation in the U.S., the McConnell Foundation in Canada, and the Amersi Foundation in the U.K. Participating universities also support the competition through entrance fees, and some universities also pay the expenses for their teams.


Once students return to their home campuses, they are encouraged to share their findings with the organizations that could most benefit from their research—and that could possibly put their recommendations into practice. For example, the winning team from Simon Fraser followed up with policymakers and the provincial government in British Columbia to share their findings regarding forest fire prevention.

While it’s exciting to see students’ research bring about “change on the ground,” he says, the competition can also create a different type of impact. “We want students to gain a new set of skills as systems leaders to approach big wicked problems in a new way that will help them become difference makers.”

In the future, Drobac hopes Map the System will start gaining more traction in areas such as sub- Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. “We want to move beyond elite business schools and well-resourced universities to create pathways and opportunities for students in the Global South,” he says.

He also hopes that systems thinking will become more recognized as a key leadership skill. At Oxford, he teaches a core MBA and EMBA course called Global Opportunities and Threats Oxford (GOTO) in which students do a systems analysis of a problem related to a sustainable development goal. “This year we looked at the future of energy—everything from upgrading battery storage for electric vehicles to improving energy access in sub-Saharan Africa to reducing carbon emissions from the global shipping industry. We framed it not as a course on energy, but as a course on systems leadership. We want students to think about the toll it takes to understand a problem and build coalitions for the large-scale action that’s required.”

Grand challenges such as climate change are bigger than any single organization or nation. Map the System was created because future leaders will need to look at these challenges with a systems approach, says Drobac. “This notion that business leaders have a responsibility for positive social and environmental value creation,” he adds, “is part and parcel of what business in the 21st century is all about.”

Read more about Map the System.

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