Collaborative Mapping – a tool for financial systems change

On the 17th of November a group of Friends Provident Foundation grant-holders gathered to explore the role of maps in building a coordinated strategy for financial systems change. Our Lead Strategist Anna Laycock shares her insights from the day.

What’s a map for? Most people would answer along the lines of ‘finding your way’, but the first known maps, dating back to 16,500 BC, do not show the earth, but the night sky. It’s not until the early Greek period that we see the first navigational maps, using the system of latitude and longitude that we’re now familiar with.

So what was the purpose of those earlier maps? Perhaps people mapped the heavens simply to understand them: to capture patterns and changes over time, and to predict future changes. The same reasons brought together a group of organisations supported by Friends Provident Foundation on 17 November, but with a very different focus. With a shared interest in building a more resilient, sustainable and fair economic system, we spent the afternoon mapping the different elements of the economy and our efforts to bring about change.

Our guide for the day was Kelly Clark, Director of the Tellus Mater Foundation, who presented their sustainable economy map – a representation of financial markets and human relationships from the regional to global scale. Tellus Mater developed the map because, as a small foundation, they needed to identify how they could engage with the financial system in a way that added value, rather than duplicating other initiatives. After mapping the different elements of the system, they identified nine intervention areas: leverage points where they could influence the structure, power dynamics and purpose within the economy. The team then consulted civil society groups to map the work of NGOs across these leverage points, identifying key overlaps and gaps.

We also heard from Chris Hewett, my colleague at The Finance Innovation Lab. Chris shared a map he developed with climate activists and financial reform campaigners at a Finance Watch workshop in early November. The map showed the current flows of finance towards fossil fuels, renewables and energy efficiency, and enabled participants to plot the different flows they’re trying to create.

The process of engaging with the maps made clear both the value of doing so and the limitations of maps as a tool.

In debating where to locate our projects, we developed a deeper understanding of our strategies, which often act on multiple leverage points, and we identified gaps in the overall picture of change efforts. But we also recognised that the maps offered a simplified version of reality.

Some participants commented that the Tellus Mater map represented a partial perspective on a sustainable economy, with financial markets at the centre and little recognition of the role of banks in credit creation or the disruptive power of financial innovation. Likewise, some felt that The Lab’s map didn’t adequately represent the flow of money from financial markets back to businesses (via share buy-backs) or the significant role of the state in fossil fuel extraction.

This doesn’t mean the maps were intrinsically flawed. All maps are only a partial representation of a highly complex whole; the key is to understand the particular lens that is being applied in each map. One participant compared this to different maps of London: the Tube map will give a very different view of London to a sewerage map, but this is because they are for different users and different uses. It wouldn’t be possible to represent all aspects of London on one map. We tend to focus on the thing that concerns us most – hence the original Greek cartographers put Greece in the middle of their maps.

Just as values shape what appears on a map, so they shape the actions of those represented on the map. The Tellus Mater map in particular is a two-dimensional network of human relationships, with the motivations of the actors an invisible third dimension to the map. Many of our organisations seek to shift values and behaviours within the system, appealing to financial logic, morality or social norms, and we agreed that this is the most complex and challenging aspect of the mapping process. We also all appear in the map ourselves, as workers, consumers or asset owners – and, I’d argue, as citizens with a social stake in the economy and a right to demand it works in service of people and planet.

A map in itself cannot shift a system, nor can any one intervention on its own. Systems change requires multiple efforts at multiple levels with multiple actors, undertaken in a spirit of collaboration and enquiry, learning and adapting as we go. Mapping exercises are an important way to understand how those different efforts fit together and identify where we are yet to address barriers or opportunities for change.

Sometimes the financial system can seem as remote and self-governing as the stars must have seemed to the ancient map-makers – but the difference is that humans created the financial system and humans can change it for the better.

This blog is also available on the Friends Provident Foundation website. Click here to read more.