In March 2019 the EU Policy Lab launched the development of a visual method to bring clarity to the European Social Economy ecosystem. Discover what makes it different from any other available business tool.

Social Economy in Europe is a very vital and complex ecosystem that cannot be captured by a single definition. It includes businesses, cooperatives, associations, mutuals, projects of corporate social responsibility, and it embraces several forms of economic activity with very different purpose, size, governance structures and economic priorities.

This is a challenging context for those who need to identify relevant criteria to develop policies and for those who need to demonstrate the short and long term beneficial effects of their activity on society and on the environment

One year ago, the EU Policy Lab started to work on an idea to address these problems and bring clarity in the field: a visual framework to represent consistently all forms of economic activities that work for people and for the planet.

One year later, thanks to the help of several colleagues, practitioners and public officers from all over Europe, the prototype of a new generation of visual canvases is ready to be tested. Here are some key features that make it different from what is commonly available to structure and describe economic activities and some hints of how it could help practitioners and policy makers.

Identities and relationships

The canvases of first generation, like Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas or one if its adaptations, the Social Business Model Canvas, bring all business-relevant elements in one place and display them in neatly arranged boxes. They are great for building overviews but each element is still an item in a list within a box. Identities, qualities and relationships remain hidden.

Left, the social business model canvas. Right, a canvas that visualizes identities and relationships.

New generation canvases focus on relationships and flows, and treat each item as an “identity” with intrinsic qualities like typology, size or composition. How these items position in space and their size is important as it is an indication of (conceptual) proximity, and relative sizes. Their relationships and the flow of resources can also be represented clearly.

For an entrepreneur, this approach is key to increase situational awareness as it moves all available information into articulated maps. From here, several possible context-aware, strategic exercises are possible.

In parallel, a policy maker can ideally access several different maps to understand how similar activities structure themselves in different locations, what key actors are involved, what is the relative size of participants, etc. and ideally spot the emergence of patterns.

A visual grammar

The Canvas for Social Economy embeds a “visual grammar” that codifies visually each element and its properties in a sort of “vocabulary”.

The images below show some of the “terms” and symbols used in the Canvas to represent communities and types of exchange.

The presence of a codified visual language acts as an enabling boundary, just like any verbal language. Anyone who takes part in the exercise can express freely, wile focussing on the subjects at hand. After the mapping, any participant can can go back to the map and quickly recall the underlying reasoning.

Compared to traditional “sticky notes” mappings, these exercises give cleaner, more accessible and more coherent results. This is essential to allow entrepreneurs and policy makers to spot areas of improvement and opportunities as the activity evolves.

The quality of the workspace

Moving beyond the familiarity of boxes brings a new design question: how do we restructure the space of our thinking?

The canvas offers two approaches.

The first is free and open: an empty canvas where a visual grammar and a precise vocabulary are the only boundaries. White space is used as the starting point and each activity positions the key actors and indicates the relationships as they wish. The picture below is an example of one of many possible landscapes that can be generated with the Canvas. The hexagons represent types of actors and the arrows indicate types of exchange. The main activity is represented by the orange hexagon at the centre.

The second is structured around the thematic areas of the triple bottom line: Society, Environment and Economy. In this approach, several different dimensions are displayed in coherent clusters and serve to structure a methodic process of exploration and discovery. It also serve to create an articulated space where no dimension has an initially pre-defined priority on the others.

An overarching metaphor for a new narrative

The Canvas for Social Economy adopts the oak tree as an overarching metaphor that reinforces a new narrative about economic ecosystems while guiding the coherent development of the project. The use of strong concepts and metaphors is a common trait in most projects that originates from the culture of design.

Economic activities as living organisms. Left, a regenerative activity; right, an activity taken from mainstream economy.

The competitive, warlike, sometime dualistic, often mechanistic terminology of mainstream economy is challenged here by a narrative that is coherent with the spirit of most if not all social economy projects and activities, that tend to see their work more as a living organism than a link in a value chain.

The colour coding, taken from the shades of colour of a leaf, reinforces the concept and gives indication of the status of each dimension.

Ready to use?

The Canvas for Social Economy is still under development, and some more improvements are expected in the few weeks. Nonetheless, we have already launched a testing phase to challenge it as a policy support tool and as a method to inspire, guide and foster the development of new, regenerative ideas.

If you are interested in mapping your project or if you simply want to test the canvas, please contact us to schedule a session! For additional information, please follow this link.

Don’t forget to leave a comment below to let us know what you think!!!


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