Exploring Impacts on Great Lakes Ecosystem Health

Our vision is a healthy, secure, and vibrant Great Lakes ecosystem sustained by robust awareness, abundant understanding, proactive management, and enduring support brought about by the full diversity of stakeholders in the region.

This is one audacious goal. How could we work together to frame the discussion?

In late 2017, the NorthSky Nonprofit Network asked Connect_CX partner Mark VanderKlipp to lead a systems mapping cohort focused on Great Lakes Ecosystem Health. Our team included three directors from the Cerulean Center, a nonprofit research organization devoted to advancing understanding of the Great Lakes ecosystem, and a coastal management specialist with the Baldwin Group/NOAA's Office for Coastal Management. we worked together through the curriculum provided by +Acumen and their Systems Practice Collaborative.

As in previous work, we developed a Systems Challenge, then followed it with the Guiding Star (above), a Near Star and a Framing Question:

Near Star: Our 5- to 10-year goal toward this vision is the creation of a citizen science program that uses shared stories, methods, and goals to activate and empower citizens, decision makers, and organizations. In so doing, we hope to transform connection to and concern for the Great Lakes into meaningful research and management activities that positively affect ecosystem health.

Framing Question: What are the factors that inhibit or encourage meaningful activities that impact the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem?


Working together in weekly sessions, we explored the complexity of the goals we'd set.


The assembled group has decades of experience working in complex systems thinking and practice. This was the first time they'd been brought together to debate the issues and determine how best to frame the conversation around those factors that enhance or inhibit ecosystem health.

The result of a team workshop that describes the complexity of this issue.

This takes a lot of time and discipline to develop, but we shared stories and tested ideas together in multiple sessions, both online and in person. Once complete, we built system map graphics in a cloud-based software that helped to delineate the causal loops in the system.

Once we'd drafted a conceptual map, the next task was to “socialize” the map in order to assure two things: first, that the system as described was understandable from both a high level and detailed perspective, and second that we hadn't missed any critical information. Our team received input from peers across the country that informed the conclusions in our final map.

The final form of the Great Lakes Ecosystem map

The map itself is organized by four key components, indicated by colors:

  • Condition: the threat to the ecosystem that exists
  • Perception: humans understanding the threat
  • Communication: shared understanding leading to action
  • Action: undertaken as a response to the threat.

At the center of the map, as you might suspect, is Political Will. This leads to either short- or long-term thinking and management of threats to the Great Lakes.


  • Choices matter and are driven by the collective. Choices are influenced by beliefs and behaviors of everyday citizens, politicians, managers, and scientists.
  • Research-based expert communication is a vital component of this system.
  • We can control the methods but not the outcomes, and so our map should reflect the reality that sometimes collective action / proactive management does not lead to a better outcome, and sometimes reactive management leads to an effective response. 
  • This map very explicitly acknowledges the humans in the ecosystem; a lot of people think humans are separate from the ecosystem, and that these are not mutually interactive systems.  If people are causing the problems, then all of those players should have a stake or role in managing or mitigating the problems they cause.
  • Need to acknowledge social embeddedness of individual action. You want individuals to engage, but they are not doing so on a blank canvas. It’s more than the sum total of individual actions; rather, it’s the individuals activating a system that is already in place. You have to rely on a network of people that share that action/conviction, and the system that supports that activity.