Mapping a Community’s Key Assets — Its People

by Oct 21, 2013Society, Technology

Frank Teng

Frank Teng is a current MBA in Sustainable Management student at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco and is on the board of Sustainable Silicon Valley. He works with Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services firm, to manage global energy and sustainability programs for corporate clients in the technology and financial services sectors. Please note: Frank's views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.

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Entrepreneurs and product designers are universally taught to focus on the problem they’re trying to solve or user need they are addressing. They are trying to correct deficiencies and improve performance. Designers and leaders of tomorrow’s cities are trained to focus on where they can make advances in effective governance and progress toward connected, efficient, vibrant communities. However, these leaders are also share a key difference from entrepreneurs and designers – they cannot select the communities they serve. Their strategic advantage should be in identifying the strengths intrinsic in their communities. Community asset mapping is a methodology that can help foster this type of thinking and approach to building a city vision.

McKinsey’s recent publication How to make a city great identified the following three spheres of best practice (excerpted):

  • They achieve smart growth. Good city leaders also think about regional growth because as a metropolis expands, they will need the cooperation of surrounding municipalities and regional service providers.
  • They do more with less. Successful city leaders have also learned that, if designed and executed well, private–public partnerships can be an essential element of smart growth, delivering lower-cost, higher-quality infrastructure and services.
  • They win support for change. Successful city leaders build a high-performing team of civil servants, create a working environment where all employees are accountable for their actions, and take every opportunity to forge a stakeholder consensus with the local population and business community.

The third point is clearly important in leadership and local politics, particularly in engaging the citizenry around a city leader’s vision. A recent posting by fellow blogger Blair Ruble noted the necessary shift that needs to take place in engaging citizens to build community momentum. Both traditional and newer citizen outreach methods of winning support for change seem to fall into two veins.

  • Institutions in the community – Community interests are often manifested through nonprofits which are organized around issues that needs to be remedied or a group that needs to be represented. Nonprofits are often considered the third-leg of the stool in civil society (the other two being government and commerce). However as nonprofit funding has been slashed through government funding reductions and shifts in philanthropy, the efficacy of nonprofits is increasingly under duress as they struggle to fulfill their missions and focus more on the tactical than the strategic components of their missions.
  • Leveraging technology to reach more people – One example is the “civic hacking” movement that seeks to transform public data into useful or informative tools. Another is proliferations of campaigns and competitions that seek to spur engagement from the community, through incentives or gamification. The City Climate Leadership Awards recently had a “citizen’s choice” category, for example, that invited broader public participation.

Most of our strongest social relationships, however, occur at a more informal level, where no one receives a salary and interactions are face to face. Think of book clubs, parental sharing, addiction prevention & recovery, fitness groups (such as the November Project free fitness movement), dog walking clubs, and neighborhood associations. These social groups stem from a place of mutual caring. People relate to each other because they care enough to seek or help others. We give freely of our talents, experience, and interests in these groups, because the exchanges are not transactional.

Community asset mapping tries to develop a window into this tightly woven social fabric. The Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University has shown interesting examples of this in action around the world, including Ireland, New York, Minnesota, and rural Cherokee communities. It is an approach toward community development that starts by asking of each person what qualities, skills, or knowledge they have that can be of value to an organization or community or city – their assets. Some people might know carpentry or gardening, and others, mural painting. Others may have experience in emergency response or logistics management.

The difference between asset mapping and typical social services is that rather than start with the problem, we start with the strengths. By understanding a community’s competitive advantage, we can nurture those assets and perhaps create opportunities for those assets to express themselves, whether in enterprise, in technology, or simply in the networks that are built. In other words, “you don’t know what you need until you know what you have.”

With the rise of social networks, people are connecting together around causes in novel and nimble patterns.  Community assets can therefore be mapped in scaleable, interesting ways. Major corporations already have ways of measuring job talent in communities when deciding where to locate and grow – they access metrics on the local labor force’s education, skills, and professional potential.  Perhaps city leaders can borrow a page from the educational sphere, which has extensive experience assessing knowledge, capabilities, and potential in students and the workforce. This can create conditions for resilience, both in short-term crises and in long term community sustainability. Understanding what assets exist in a community can ultimately provide leverage points for city leaders and smart city visionaries to win support for change and even more, cultivate the seeds for a future they have yet to imagine.


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