Theo Cox, Rufus Pollock and Anna Katharina Schaffner

Mapping for Emergence

Life Itself and Emerge will join forces to map the emergent metamodern ecosystem. But what is so great about social network mapping? Why does it matter, and how can it help?




Life Itself and Emerge are excited to be joining forces to map a social change ecosystem emerging in recent years. In this, we are building on our existing work, for example Life Itself’s recently released State of Sensemaking directory and its earlier reports and Emerge’s portfolio of insight essays and profiles.

The ecosystem is still emerging and ill-defined. Reflecting this, there has been no clear name for it. For now, we are using the label “Metamodern” – though we remain mindful of the variety of existing options e.g. the sensemaking web, the metamodern movement or meta tribe, the liminal web, the ten tribes of transformation, the intellectual deep web, and the Emergentsia.

Why Map
Why map in the first place? What is so great about mapping, when we are already culturally inclined to mistake our many existing maps for the territory?

Geographic maps help to orient ourselves in the physical world. Social network mapping does the same in the social space. It makes networks visible to themselves and to the outside world. This has important benefits: actors can understand their position within and relationship to the larger network. They can find others. And people outside these networks can see that actors are not lone warriors but part of something bigger with discernible and shared features. 

Going further, maps can reveal and visualize the deeper patterns that connect. This can be catalytic – understanding the wider system in which we are embedded, as well as the broader cultural shifts, trends and developments in which we partake, can enhance our self-understanding, facilitate new relationships and create points of connection of which we may not previously have been aware.

Moreover, maps can catalyze coherence. While many social change pioneers are working to counter social fragmentation, ironically, the social change space itself is highly fragmented. This fragmentation leads to a loss of energy, resources and effectiveness. We, too, need to find better ways to collaborate and to divide work between us – for our goals are complex and momentous. This can mean working together on specific initiatives, or identifying what are our unique gifts to the space and what, perhaps, we can pass to others. Thus, in addition to enhancing our self-understanding and strengthening our identity inside and out, mapping can help catalyze a more cohesive and focused approach in the way we work with each other. 

Context: A new ecosystem is emerging

We sense that a new ecosystem, or ecosystem of ecosystems, is emerging. A growing number of people, organizations and initiatives are taking alternative approaches to social change, which diverge from and go beyond the more established spaces in civil society and the social economy.

The ecosystem as we understand it is highly heterogeneous – even disparate. However, there are commonalities. The most basic common denominator is the belief that social change should be paradigmatic, integrated (e.g. inner and outer transformation must go hand in hand) and engaged

We also see emerging commonalities in key views which we have termed: post-individualism, (w)holism and culture-making (in the form of new norms and narratives).

There is also a focus on complexity, systems and emergence, on developmental models, spirituality and practice, and on sensemaking, different forms of knowledge and what Indra Adnan calls ‘cosmo-local’ activism. Other commonalities include an interest in decentralized governance, new narratives, alternative social imaginaries and regenerative culture. 

Nonetheless, the boundaries, relationships and patterns of influences in the ecosystem remain blurry, with our present awareness feeling like it only touches the tip of the iceberg. Questions that remain unclear include who exactly comprises the ecosystem, how activities and visions relate to one another, where the coherences and tensions lie and how it might evolve.

An opportunity: how mapping matters

Charting this new territory is valuable for two main reasons. First, and most importantly, mapping makes it identifiable and visible. This supports engagement with the broader “mainstream” which is vital as we move from philosophizing about social transformation towards taking the kinds of action that make it a reality. Second, it helps the ecosystem’s coherence, cohesiveness and self-awareness. This supports connection both within and without the space leading to greater and better collaboration. It supports a better division of labor meaning greater efficiency and effectiveness . And, finally, it supports members to situate themselves and their work in a broader context.

Mapping makes the ecosystem identifiable and visible
We take each of these two points in turn. Mapping provides the ecosystem with a coherent identity, allowing a visible whole to emerge from what can otherwise seem like disconnected parts. What can otherwise appear as a disparate set of actors is seen as a collective whole, perhaps even a budding movement. This will give a more concrete access point to interested outside parties and early adopters, making it easier for others to discover and engage with this ecosystem and its constituents.

Following from this, the ecosystem presents a more coherent and united front when engaging with external actors such as funders, academics and policy-makers. This boosts the credibility and effectiveness of our shared efforts.

Finally, this ecosystem as a space of integration contains multiple important convergences of both ideas and effort. One example: the convergence of complexity science, evolutionary biology and cognitive science support the insights of ancient wisdom traditions around interbeing and interdependence. However, these convergences are not very visible, especially to those outside the space (in part, due to varying terminology etc). In mapping the ecosystem, these convergences in ideas, efforts and practices become visible. This connects the ecosystem to the broader landscape and also brings insights and coherence more widely. Concretely, this reduces the duplicative work of repeated explanation and legitimation currently undertaken by many aligned actors, particularly as they attempt to secure funding or achieve impact in more mainstream contexts.

Mapping brings coherence and cohesiveness
This brings us to our second major point: helping the ecosystem to become more self-aware will increase the capacity of its members to achieve their goals. Here, a mapping effort enables actors to connect and collaborate better with others doing related work. It also  helps them situate themselves and their activities in a broader context. The result of this will be greater consistency and division of labor across individual organizations and actors, fostering an increased willingness to collaborate and play to our unique advantages.

At present, many actors in the space hold a vague awareness that there are others out there doing similar work to theirs. Perhaps, they even have a sense of who they may be. However, in many cases, this is about as far as this understanding goes, meaning efforts are often duplicated and strategies are not aligned as effectively as they could be. 

Similarly, many of us feel compelled to engage in a large and often quite disparate number of activities, from hosting events and creating media to undertaking research and developing practice. Closer connections and awareness of specialisms within the ecosystem is the first step to facilitating greater focus at the level of individual organizations, opening the possibility for collaboration around certain areas to replace formerly ‘in-house’ activities. This would enable more resources to be directed at what each of us do best, allowing us to become more cause-oriented. Ultimately, greater focus and collaboration are key to realizing our shared visions. 

Vision for the initiative

The nature and the scale of our goals for this mapping initiative make collaboration a key to success. Life Itself and Emerge are excited to be working together to scale and develop this work and welcome the participation of others. We also want to ensure it can be as useful as possible to the wider ecosystem – not just an academic exercise. 

Life Itself has already started with the launch of a directory and analysis of the ecosystem. Together we will continue to add new organizations. We will start to supplement these with personal profiles of key actors in the ecosystem. In that way, we hope that the directory can also function as a ‘who is who’ in the space for those who want to learn more about it.

In the more medium term, we want to add more analytical depth to the map. Our current ideas include analyzing trends in key concepts and ideas over time, mapping where organizations sit relative to one another based on core characteristics, and perhaps even charting their roles and functions within the ecosystem.

We also envisage this as a ‘mapping plus’ effort where we reflect critically on how and why we do the mapping, what exactly it is that we are mapping and how we can explain and put into a broader historical context the trends and synergies we see emerging.

Get involved

Finally, we would love to receive input and contribution at this early stage. If you would like to provide suggestions or get involved then please head over to Here are some of the ways to help out:

+ Provide feedback on the project so far, or ideas about which features or foci you think would be most useful going forward.
+ Suggest organisations to add (or improvements to current entries – especially on your organization!).
+ Coding and design on the project backend and visualizations.
+ Let us know if you wish to work more directly on the project, or are already undertaking work which you think would be complementary.
+ Resourcing: We would welcome the sharing of any opportunities for resourcing, or offers of direct support! We are currently undertaking the project using only our own internal resources, which limits the scope and speed of our activities. Additional resources could make a big difference to sustaining and expanding this work.

We look forward to hearing from you, and hope you can continue to join us as we venture forward to chart this new and exciting territory.

Words by Theo Cox, Rufus Pollock and Anna Katharina Schaffner
Life Itself a multidisciplinary network grounded in presence and purpose. We create hubs, start businesses, do research and engage in activism to pioneer a wiser and weller culture. /// Rufus Pollock is co-founder of Life Itself. He as previously founder and President of the Open Knowledge Foundation, a Shuttleworth Fellow, the Mead Fellow in Economics at Cambridge University. /// Theo Cox is Head of Delivery for Life Itself. He has a professional background in consultancy, and holds degrees in both Politics, Philosophy and Economics and Development Studies. /// Anna Katharina Schaffner is Director of Emergence at Perspectiva and Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent.