In his 2012 book, ‘A History of the World in Twelve Maps’, Jerry Brotton takes the reader through a tour of twelve maps that were created in twelve distinct moments of human history. The last of these maps, is Google Earth. Throughout the book, the author makes the case that map making isn’t a passive exercise of observation, geometric abstraction and skillful craftsmanship. Map making has been a part of human cultural, artistic and economic activity across time and space. A map is a product of the mental model of the civilisation that created it.
I would argue that those of us who are in the mission of sustainable systems change (e.g. in the global field of philanthropy) need to be curious and ambitious about a different kind of map making; a map that explores our collective wisdom, for it is wisdom and not information alone that will guide us as we navigate in the age of hyperconnectivity and the added complexity which results from it.
For that reason, one of the most commercially valuable maps in the world right now, is not a geographical map. It’s a network map; it’s a social network map that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google curate from the data provided by all their users. It’s a map of us and our digital connections that only these companies can contemplate in its fullest.
Cartography is always biased and if there’s any lesson to take from Jerry Brotton book, it is that ‘(…) individuals and organisations have appropriated world maps for their own symbolic and political ends, regardless of the cartographer’s claims to comprehensiveness and objectivity.‘
The disruptive power of digital social networks and the graphs behind them has been proven in the last decade: it has been found to be the culprit of the Arab spring movement, the Brexit vote, presidential elections, #metoo movements; the list goes on and on.
But how can we harness the power of social networks and the maps we can derive from them for constructive and sustainable systems change that is the primary quest of many in the philanthropy field for example?
Well, the bad news is that this goal is incompatible with the commercial objectives of digital social networks. But, the good news is that the technology and the processes to create these maps is already out there and available to every NGO, Philanthropic entity, CSO, activists, grassroots initiatives, and individual change agents. It is available through platforms like Kumu, Sumapp, Graphcommons, SevenVortex, Neo4j to name just a few.
We are living in an era where every one of us can be a cartographer and systems map maker of their own community and field. Yet, the end game is not the map itself. Actually, there is no end game at all. The mapping process is perpetual and is the change process per se. Mapping invites you to explore and to ask questions. It is by trying to answer these questions that you live out the change process before it gets represented on the map.
If we’re working, for example, in the peacebuilding field, trying to support locally led peacebuilding initiatives in remote areas of the World, starting out with a ‘beginners mind’ of a cartographer of social systems,we might open up extraordinary avenues of discovery. Who is out there? How are we all linked? Who or what organisations are missing? What are the blind spots of the map? As we fill in the blanks on the map, we are weaving these people, organizations and movements together and thereby hosting an implicit space for social innovation and creativity; nature abhors the vacuum.
What is most interesting in the Cantino map below is not the areas that are mapped, but the areas which are not (like most of Brazil, for example) as those parts invite our curiosity to exploration.
The Cantino planisphere or Cantino world map is the earliest surviving map showing Portuguese geographic discoveries in the east and west.
As an example, the picture below illustrates one of the outcomes of a participatory social network mapping exercise during the Global Festival of Action, last May in Bonn, Germany.
With this map, you can not only explore who attended the event, but most importantly how you are connected to the wider ecosystem of SDG’s. This can be either through personal connections, through shared interests or simply my matching offer and demand of skills. I believe this type of map, if kept alive, can significantly contribute to the assessment and the improvement of social capital among systems change networks. Take a look at the full report on the Global Festival for Action, here.
Cartographers throughout history not only reproduced the world, they also built it. The maps they created shaped the world because it allowed people to decide and act based on a particular representation of the world, now accessible through the map. This is the power of maps; to briefly reduce the complexity of the world into something which is understandable to the human mind and that way help us align our actions purposefully. Those of us who are trying to create sustainable systems change, should be aware of not oversimplifying our maps: they should be simple but not simplistic. They should provide clarity but also provoke questions.
In this age of social complexity, we often struggle with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty: what needs to be done now? Will we do no harm? We are drowning in information but, most of the time, lost for wisdom. It is naive to think that complexity is something endemic to our modern civilization. It is only the awareness of it and the amount of interconnectedness that is truly unique to our time. Maps and cartography have always been there to help us navigate the world. It is only natural that our art of mapmaking should evolve accordingly to help us navigate a social complex world. Just as our ancestors did throughout history, shouldn’t we also be investing in mapping out our web of relationships out of which our collective wisdom can emerge?
Pedro Portela is an independent consultant in the areas of Systems and Complexity Thinking