Small islands can guide visualization of the diverse information requirements of future context-relevant coastal governance. On small marine islands (<20 000 km2), negative effects of coastal challenges (e.g., related to population growth, unsustainable resource use or climate change) can develop rapidly, with high intensity and extreme impacts. The smallest and most remote islands within small-island states and small islands in larger states can be threatened by intrinsic governance factors, typically resulting in access to fewer resources than larger islands or administrative centres. For these reasons, efforts to support coastal change governance are critical and need to be targeted. We propose a conceptual framework that distinguishes key governance-related components of small-island social–ecological systems (SESs). To prioritize areas of vulnerability and opportunity, physical, ecological, social, economic and governance attributes are visualized to help show the ability of different types of small-island SESs to adapt, or be transformed, in the face of global and local change. Application of the framework to an Indonesian archipelago illustrates examples of local rule enforcement supporting local self-organized marine governance. Visualization of complex and interconnected social, environmental and economic changes in small-island SESs provides a better understanding of the vulnerabilities and opportunities related to context-specific governance.