Social Innovation, Nesta, Aldo de Moor, Prompts, Proposals, Prototypes, Sustaining, Scaling, Systemic Change

Participatory Community Network Mapping as Collective Sensemaking – Part 1 of an interview with Aldo de Moor

Aldo de Moor
Aldo de Moor

Aldo de Moor is a research consultant dedicated to bridging the gap between research and practice in the field of Community Informatics.The founder of CommunitySense, Aldo was previously a Senior Researcher at the STARLab in Brussels, Belgium as well as an Assistant Professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. He has worked with a wide range of clients from domains as diverse as education, research, government, public libraries, business, and social innovation.

Aldo is also a Kumu ‘Kumu’. Kumu means roughly ‘Wise one’, ‘Guru’, ‘Sensei’ in Hawiian. Kumu, the mapping platform, has a list of Kumu wizards available for consulting work using Kumu. These wizards are themselves called ‘Kumus’.

Conversations with Aldo have informed my own mapping work in important ways.

My interview of him was rich in significance, insight & experience. We came away with a lot to distill and make sense of, so I've decided to break it down into manageable chunks rather than attempt to digest it for you all in one or two long posts.

Future posts on my talks with Aldo will address what Participatory Community Network Mapping makes possible, language & stories, power, process, and finally, considerations to keep in mind when conducting a mapping project. But for this post, I want to address what’s the overall purpose in the first place? Why is Participatory Community Network Mapping - especially Aldo-style - important?

Participatory Community Network Mapping Is A Crucial Methodology For Social Innovation

Community network maps capture the essential elements and connections of a collaborative community and its surrounding network of stakeholders. In Aldo’s practice, community network maps are about much more than classic Social Network Analysis (SNA) & “sterile statistics””. In his hands, ‘Community Network Mapping’ becomes an engagement process, a collaboration catalyst, a dynamic knowledge base, a “Maker of Meaning”, - and most of all a method of collective sensemaking. Sensemaking, by the definition Aldo uses is “a collaborative process of creating shared awareness and understanding out of different interests and perspectives of stakeholders.”

And the more we learn about social innovation and dealing with complex “wicked” problems, the clearer it is that collective sensemaking is a core requirement.

It is actually a political process.

What participatory community network mapping does is democratizing the creation of these meaningful maps of the world.

Aldo says, in reference to the NESTA Social Innovation Process model shown in the graphic below, that social innovation - working together with stakeholders from many different sectors in on solving complex societal problems - tends to get stuck when moving from “Prototypes” to “Sustaining” through “Scaling”. And those are the phases of the process that participatory community network mapping, done well, can help to advance.

When done poorly, he cautions, community network maps can undermine community work by being an empty distraction, offering the seduction of a silver bullet, institutionalizing the misuse of power, and by using limiting language - language that closes down possibility, exploration and creativity, instead of opening them up.

But when done right, these kinds of maps can be powerful catalysts for empowerment and emancipation.

Putting Projects & Prototypes Into Context

The unit of analysis, unit of everything is still at the project level.

Aldo says that one of the reasons the social innovation process often gets stuck is because we’re generally still focussed at the prototype and project levels. Prototypes and projects, of course, are very important - they’re where the work gets done, and where people’s energies are directed. But we also need to see (and show) how our projects fit within the larger societal context if we want our innovations to spread and to make a difference at the broader systemic level. And to do that, we need better means of sensing collectively, beyond that project-level space, into the larger systems we hope to change.

Overcoming Fragmentation

Out of context, projects are usually fragmented - unnecessarily duplicating effort and spreading resources thinner and thinner. Community network maps can help individuals and projects find others working towards the same or similar goals, share resources, develop synergies. It is exactly the inter-communal space where community efforts can grow roots and tie in with initiatives from other communities, thus leading to more sustainability and scalability..

It helps to see the fragments, see how they can be combined, and how together they can be woven together into a collaborative fabric that gets you where you want to go.

Strengthening Feedback Loops for Sustaining and Scaling Change

Fragmentation also undermines scaling-up by leaving everyone to re-create the wheel on their own. Yet when ideas, energy, learning, inspiration, resources and influence are shared and broadly accessible within the community context, the changes sought can spread further and faster.

There’s a lot of leakage in communities, with not much coming back in terms of feedback; such feedback could be anything from storytelling, to sharing energizing photos of an outcome of an interesting event that’s being organized.

[ideally, you want] to feed some of that energy and results into another process that may live in a very different community, thus building bridges of inspiration and interaction across boundaries.

Conversations That Lead Somewhere

I’ll touch more on all of the themes above in later posts - but the main theme that weaves through our entire exploration and is most fundamental to what a good mapping process provides is that of instigating, guiding, capturing and amplifying conversations.

‘Maps engender and capture conversations’

At the core of Aldo’s participatory approach is the use of the map as both a stimulus and a representation of the essence of an ongoing collective conversation - that is what takes his work far beyond traditional SNA. It is weaving the maps through the conversation and vice versa that makes them catalytic.

Mapping and conversations are always two sides of the same coin.

A map without conversations is nothing and conversations without some form of mapping is much more fragmented; that’s what we see in the cloud now, for example, where everything is happening at the same time but not much really comes out of it in terms of sustained collaboration.

Finding the Path

And what those map-driven conversations provide is, like any good map, help us in finding our way from here to where we want to end up while navigating through a very complex and confusing space.

. . .in that mess and mesh of day-to-day collaborative networks, it helps you to see the bigger picture, to both see the longer-term strategic direction you want to move into but also how you can get there without getting lost in chaos.

So, as we’ll delve more deeply into in following posts, if you’re serious about collaboration, social innovation and systems change, don’t leave network mapping out of your change toolkit. And if you’re already mapping, follow this series to learn how you can leverage that activity to make it even more effective.

Or if you can, hire Aldo to guide and support the process - because the greater the stakes, the more his experience will serve you! See for example this project on using the participatory community network mapping approach to promote the sharing of social innovation lessons learnt between European cities

Next Up:

In my next post about my conversations with Aldo, I’ll address what becomes possible through Participatory Community Network Mapping from his experience, that is far less possible without it.

After that we'll explore language & story, power, process and considerations related to participatory mapping.

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