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.

Canvases that focus on relationships treat each item as an “identity” with intrinsic qualities like typology, size or composition, and with a specific, non casual position in space. This allows to visualize rich landscapes that take into account the relative sizes of each element, their proximity, their similarity, their exchanges, etc.

For an entrepreneur, this exercise is key to increase strategic awareness as it moves all available information into maps that show, for example, the absence of certain actors, or the unexpected importance of an overlooked community, or the entity and qualities of the exchanges between contributors and beneficiaries.

A policy maker, on the other side, can access several different maps to understand how the same activity plays out in different locations, for example, what key actors are involved and the relative size of participants.

A visual grammar

The Canvas for Social Economy embeds a “visual grammar” that goes beyond the use of icons as visual anchors to guide the eye. It codifies visually each element and its properties so that several very different landscapes can be read consistently.

The images below show some of the 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 herself freely, focus on the subjects at hand and be understood during and after the exercise. This allows any person to access the mapping at any time and understand what it represents relatively quickly.

Compared to traditional “sticky notes” mappings, these exercises give cleaner, more accessible and more coherent results without introducing rigid limitations. This is essential to allow entrepreneurs and policy makers to immediately capture the essence of a map and spot areas of improvement and opportunities.

The quality of the workspace

Moving beyond boxes means redesigning the framework that organises the workspace; from unorganised, empty workspaces to spaces organised around boundaries, attractors or basic relationships that are intrinsic to specific contexts. The Canvas for Social Economy uses both approaches in two different exercises.

An unorganised, white space is used as the starting point to map the landscape of a social economy activity. 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 communities and the arrows indicate types of exchange. The main activity is represented by the orange hexagon at the centre.

On the contrary, when we “zoom into” an activity to map its identity we encounter a space structured around the categories of the triple bottom line which inspire the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals: Society, Environment and Economy.

This structured approach allows us to layout several different dimensions in a coherent space that becomes at the same time a guide for analysis and a monitor of the inner nature of each project, where no particular dimension takes over.

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.

When each is activity is assimilated to a living organism, the automatic association with the competitive, warlike, sometime dualistic, often mechanistic terminology of mainstream economy is challenged by a more inspiring narrative that is coherent with the spirit of most if not all social economy projects and activities.

The colour coding, taken from the shades of colour of a leaf, reinforces the concept while effectively helping to focus the efforts on reinforcing the “tree”.

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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