Monday, April 13, 2009

Mapping the social economy

One of my favorite magazines is Next American City, a quarterly publication that looks at the best that cities have to offer and the challenges to achieving those bests. It relies on the intersections of geography, culture, demography, urban planning, markets, climate, science, government, civil society, art, housing, and good writing.

Two stories in the most recent edition caught my attention as particularly relevant to current philanthropy discussions. The first is an interview with Roope Mokka, a Dutch social scientist interested in the question “what will cities look like in 2050?” The second is called “Riding the Imaginary Rails: Map Enthusiasts and Transit Advocacy.” My chance to read the issue came on a recent flight. My 8 year old was sitting next to me as I flipped through the magazine, a practice I developed years ago and that still defines the need for paperbound copies of magazines; cool as my Kindle is, I cannot flip through it willy-nilly, stopping to read at whatever point catches my eye. It was my kid who cried “stop!” as the flipping briefly revealed the ever-familiar DC Metro map. Except it wasn’t the Metro at all, it was an imagined map of the expanding DC bus system developed by an independent computer programmer in the area.

We don’t live in DC, so the Metro map shouldn’t have been all that familiar. We do live in a city with a subway, however, and so the red, blue, yellow, orange and green spider’s web was instantly recognizable as a transit map, even if the city and form of transit were not. It probably helps that my kid had spent the previous day drawing his own bus system onto a map of our city. Turns out, my kid’s behavior was the essence of both stories in Next American City. The DC story was one of several in which local residents got directly involved as transit advocates and made their points to various policy makers by drawing their own maps. They live there, they use the rails and buses, they know where current problems exist and they know where they need to go – why not let them design the system?

This, it turns out, is exactly Roope Mokka’s approach. Faced with his question about the future shape of cities he turned to the people who live in them. Using the same community generated knowledge approach that underlies Wikipedia, Milka built Wikicity to engage the public in designing cities they want to inhabit.

What does this have to do with philanthropy? Well, for one thing, design is a big buzzword in philanthropy these days. Too often, however, I think it is equated with good graphic design or iconic product design. What really matters is the design process – the manner in which designers work. Here’s where Milka’s approach of including those who live in the city becomes so important. It’s also why a new book and set of maps called An Atlas of Radical Cartography kept me so busy on my recent vacation. This set of essays and maps is a powerful jumpstarter to thinking differently about whatever it is you do.

More than just making maps upside down, radical cartography maps the unmappable, puts mapping tools in the hands of those usually left off of maps, and maps the in-between parts. It is sort of like a narrative and pictorial users-guide to what I think M.C. Escher’s brain must have been like.

The really useful thing about these urban planner magazines or radical maps is not the end product, but the process of deciding what to include, what to omit, how to show connections, how to depict value, and how to measure meaning. Those are the questions good philanthropists and social investors seem to be asking as well. And it may be just about time for new maps that show how these pieces of the social economy - development entrepreneurism, development aid, philanthropy, investing, social investing, social enterprise, charity, nonprofits - fit together. Or not.


Sandra van der Lingen said...

Hi, I tried to include mapping and nonprofits by putting Mumbai charities and their 'wish lists' on a GoogleMap. Whilst there are thousands of charities in Mumbai (really!!), it's not easy to find one close to home. This is kind of frustrating. I really believe in the idea of mapping to involve people in community work close to where they work and live so I liked your post. Check out the map at

Philip A. Livshits said...

Everything seems to be in order, except for the fact that Rooope's from Finland, thus finnish - not dutch :P