Asset Mapping for Systems Change

Behavior change is hard work. Changing culture is harder. And systems change? That’s the hardest of all.

I’ve heard these sentiments my entire career, and I’ve even believed them. Yes, it is hard to conceive of a different world than the one we inhabit now, let alone bring such radical change about. However, when change happens, it can happen very quickly. Think of the societal shifts around marriage quality or legalizing cannabis as two more recent examples in the United States.

So is it true that change is hard? Or, is change hard because of how social movements have traditionally gone about making change? And what if there were methods we could employ that more quickly laid the groundwork for long-term, systems level change?

The ABCD of Asset Mapping

As part of my bioregional weaving efforts in the Bay Delta bioregion, I’ve been very interested in an approach called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), along with the related enabling process of “asset mapping.” The ABCD approach originated with John L. McKnight and John P. Kretzmann at Northwestern University, and was first captured in their 1990 paper “Mapping Community Capacity.”

I’ve known about ABCD and asset mapping for some time, but have never done this work directly, so I have been doing some research. While I’ve been learning, I thought I would invite you to learn with me!

One of my biggest questions has been about the relationship between the ABCD and asset mapping. So let’s start there, shall we?

Asset mapping is a process of identifying and cataloging the resources, skills, and strengths that exist within a community, organization or ecosystem. It involves creating an inventory of the various assets that a community possesses, including:

  1. Physical assets (e.g., buildings, parks, infrastructure)
  2. Economic assets (e.g., businesses, job opportunities)
  3. Human assets (e.g., skills, knowledge, talents of individuals)
  4. Social assets (e.g., community organizations, clubs, networks)
  5. Cultural assets (e.g., traditions, arts, heritage)

The goal of asset mapping is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the existing resources within a community, which can then be leveraged for community development initiatives.

Asset-Based Community Development is a community development approach that builds upon the asset mapping process. It is a strategy that focuses on identifying and mobilizing a community’s existing assets, strengths, and resources as the foundation for sustainable development. ABCD emphasizes the following principles:

  1. Building on existing assets: ABCD recognizes that every community has valuable assets that can be used to drive positive change.
  2. Community-driven development: ABCD encourages community members to take ownership of the development process and actively participate in identifying and addressing their own needs and priorities.
  3. Relationship building: ABCD fosters connections and collaborations among community members, organizations, and institutions to leverage collective resources and strengths.
  4. Empowerment: ABCD aims to empower individuals and communities by recognizing and utilizing their existing strengths and capabilities, rather than focusing solely on their deficiencies or needs.

In summary, asset mapping is the process of identifying and cataloging a community’s assets, while ABCD is a broader approach that utilizes those identified assets as the foundation for community development initiatives. ABCD builds upon the asset mapping process by actively engaging community members and stakeholders in leveraging their assets to drive positive change. And what is an asset? In short, anything of value to the community.

The Power of Relationship

In my research, I’ve uncovered a lot of “flavors” of this work: asset mapping, mapathons, community auditing, and Warm Data Labs, and even older approaches such as rapid rural appraisal (RRA). A primary commonality among them is that the important part is not the map, but the relationships that emerge from the map.

I’m attracted to asset mapping because the mapping is done to guide and empower the hard work of community organizing. In that way, I think of asset mapping’s DNA as a combination of Donella Meadows’ bioregional learning centers and Saul Alinsnky’s community organizing model.

When we have a deeper understanding of a complex system (or set of systems), especially the inherent strengths and latent desires or potentialities of the actors in a system, then a pathway towards realigning incentives emerges. I am reminded of “pull” vs “push” marketing strategies. Rather than attempt to force people to make change through external motivators, we take the time to understand the intrinsic motivations that would draw someone to make change on their own, supported by networks of relationships. At least that’s my take on the theory behind this work.

Some interesting examples of asset mapping I’ve found include:

  • California Farm to Fork Asset Map was a 2015 effort to capture the current farm to fork activities in the state of California, including key statewide implementing organizations which was used to  elaborate on gaps in programs and resources.
  • Puget Sound Mapping Project provides a mapping tool for regional and local governments that shows growth patterns around the Puget Sound Region using consistent methods across cities and counties.
  • This Cultural Asset Map charted the range of socially, spatially, and aesthetically diverse resources that contribute to a sense of belonging among communities across the City of Oakland and support the production and presentation of artistic and creative work. That map informed the development of the Oakland Cultural Plan in 2018.

Asset Mapping the Bay Delta Bioregion

For our purposes in the Bay Delta bioregion, I am excited about the prospects for asset mapping to:

  • Bring coherence to existing efforts around regeneration, restoration and community resilience
  • Identify important partners and allies to engage as this bioregional weaving effort grows
  • Serve as an open information commons for storytelling, mapping and visualization, systems modeling, etc.

As such, I’m very excited to kick off an asset mapping process for the Bay Delta bioregional weaving effort. We are pursuing a volunteer-driven, “crowd sourced” approach to asset mapping our  bioregion. We aim to grow community, build capacity for change, and have fun learning together about our home.

ABCD and Asset Mapping Resources