GeoStrategy and the Four C’s of MapStorytelling
In order to understand geostrategy these days, one must understand the dynamic interplay of countries, cities, companies, and communities. One must understand how they evolve and coevolve over time. And, one must understand this change as it is arrayed geographically, across space and time. One must understand the stories, the MapStories of these countries, cities, companies and communities.
The number of countries in the world has grown from approximately 80 at the founding of the United Nations just over 60 years ago to over 200 today. Most of these are fragile post-colonial nations with the same underlying factors of instability that gave rise to the Arab Spring: over-population, crumbling infrastructure, corrupt governance, and high unemployment. The more new countries that are born out of secessionist movements—East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan in just the past decade—the more weak states we will have.
From a historical standpoint, there is nothing permanent or immutable about the state or governments as the exclusive units of power and authority. Some states will survive while others will give way to new modes of organizing people through technology, resources, ideology, and money. These new modes of organizing are already spawning a thousand stories that must be understood spatially and temporally if we are to understand their impact on geopolitics and geostrategy. And, while many states erode, geopolitics and geostrategy will become far more dependent on the far more durable locus of authority since the advent of human settlements – the city. As of 2010, we officially live in a world that is more urban than rural. By 2030, close to 75 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. As a result, it is more appropriate and useful to think of the new human geography on the micro-level of cities than the macro-level of states.
Just forty city-regions account for two-thirds of the world economy and most technological innovation. New York City’s economy is larger than that of sub-Saharan Africa. As with states, there are many kinds of cities, the most important of which are global financial capitals like New York, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong which are both economic and political hubs, and mega-cities such as Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Cairo, Shanghai or Mumbai which are major population magnets as well as economic engines. Of growing importance are also port cities and city-states such as Dubai and Singapore that efficiently re-export goods across the world. These entrepôts or “free zones” are not only cultural melting pots with residents from over one hundred nations, but also crucial gateways to rapidly growing emerging market regions. This is hardly a new story. There are endless MapStorytelling opportunities to help us understand how these durable socio-cultural patterns have shaped our world in the past – and will shape geopolitics in the future.
Within the growing number of megalopolises dotting the planet we also find teeming slums in Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Nairobi, or Dhaka and dozens of other cities of the fragile and over-populated post-colonial world. While these are often called “shadow economies,” they are in fact self-organizing ecosystems with their own geographic patterns, political hierarchies, economic models, and social structures. Our current maps of such complex but dense and influential areas are woefully inadequate, even as they have to be constantly updated to account for their dynamism. Yet, there are emerging examples such as the MapKibera project that show how we can collectively build spatially-enabled awareness of these complex urban situations. If we are smart, we will collectively bring to light key storylayers describing the urban challenges at the heart of so many geopolitical and geostrategic considerations, and we will empower everyone to use them to express their own narratives by telling their own MapStories for the world to see and hear.
But these narratives will blend what we know about countries and cities, with what we know about companies. While the cross-border networks of cities are nascent in their development, those of companies—are very advanced. Multinational corporations own and operate worldwide supply chains, provide foreign investment and tax revenue without which many governments cannot survive, and generate essential employment to maintain social stability. Indeed, the financial crisis of 2008 revealed not only the pervasive power of an increasingly unregulated private sector, but also the dependence of many governments on banks and financial institutions for revenues.
Even after the financial crisis and subsequent crash in markets, corporations still represent half of the world’s top one hundred economic entities. The world’s largest corporation, Wal-Mart, represents greater economic size than all but 21 national economies. Furthermore, its global workforce of over 2 million employees and greenhouse gas emissions larger than that of Ireland make it a systemically relevant actor more so than dozens of countries. Energy and mineral companies have an even more profound impact on the governance, stability, and welfare of many societies around the world. Africa’s largest economy and most populous country, Nigeria, depends to a great extent on the extractive work of one multinational oil company, Royal Dutch-Shell. The intricate relationship between the Nigerian government and Shell is much more accurately described as co-dependence and co-governance than the dominance of one by the other. Other firms are technology and information providers that are indispensable for all other actors as well. Far more than a news organization, Bloomberg has become the world’s largest private intelligence service on markets and politics. IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Apple provide the essential hardware and software for basic government and economic functioning worldwide. These corporate dynamics must be understood in terms of the geographies that they hail from, the geographies within which they thrive, the geographies that they seek penetrate – and how all this has evolved over time.
Corporations have become the tip of the diplomatic spear for many countries. State-owned companies like Russia’s Gazprom and China’s Sinopec are principal arms of foreign policy for these powers. Even for free-market states like Canada, Brazil, Japan and India, the expansion of their private multinational corporations abroad is the source of their strategic influence and diplomatic leverage. All over the world, private equity funds are taking stakes in farmland, gold, and other resources in exchange for building basic services and serving as friendly intermediaries with Western governments. Mapping these dynamics is essential. With MapStory, as a new dimension to the global data commons, those who have special knowledge of and informative narratives about how these dynamics evolve in space and time will be able to draw the world’s attention in a way that creates accountability that corporate globalization has too often avoided. The writ of the state has become at best hybrid sovereignty over supply chains, special economic zones, and reconstruction projects. Governments can attempt to monitor or regulate corporations, but they cannot control them.
There is nothing new about one particular category of assertive company: Criminals. Globalization has brought about the opening of borders, increase in volume and variety of goods and services, and intensification of competition for commodities and in terms of price. For all these reasons, criminal enterprises have grown in lock-step with globalization’s advance, preying both on wealthy states with lucrative markets to serve and weak states that cannot regulate their markets and resources. Criminal organizations and networks operate in supply chains eerily similar to those of legitimate corporations, perpetrating the illicit transfer and sale of goods as varied as drugs, weapons, minerals, currencies, and people. The ways in which criminal enterprises leverage, insinuate themselves into, and coopt legal governmental transfer and commercial exchanges makes tracking them a perpetually notorious task—thus requiring ever more sophisticated data mapping tools.
The community—the fourth C—is the level at which we can best observe all the elements of the new human geography come together. Nationalism is no longer necessarily the dominant identity or motivation for human groups. Cross-border religious and ethnic identities are strengthening around the world (particularly in Africa and the Middle East), as are tribal and indigenous identities within and across states (particularly in Latin America and Asia). From the Inuit of Canada to the Baluchis of Pakistan and Naxalites of India, indigenous groups use means ranging from constitutional reforms to armed rebellion to fight for control over local natural resources and assert their independence. Technology empowers all these categories of community to more vocally express their autonomous interests, which can be further propagated and fueled by ever more connected diaspora groups. Technology has also enabled the rise of new kinds of collective ideational activism such as social media organized student revolutionaries across the Arab world. Cloud communities are forming around political causes such as the hacker movement Anonymous that generated a global firestorm with the release of the WikiLeaks cables. The geographies that these communities touch as they evolve over time are key to understanding geopolitical dynamics and geostrategic action. MapStory offers an opportunity for such communities to self-describe their evolution over space and time, and for a global community of experts to publish their observations for the world to see.
The rise of community-centric politics must also influence thinking about actors and roles in shaping global security outcomes. The case of Afghanistan demonstrates that successful counter-insurgency must be conducted at the village level by gaining the support of influential tribal elders. The Arab Spring further shows how collectives of youth, workers and other marginalized groups can have a major impact on politics in pivotal states. At the same time, radical terrorist propaganda and recruitment now takes place to a growing degree through online communities and forums, making cyberspace not just a neutral communicative realm but also a battlefield with new kinds of armies, strategies and tactics.
The interplay among the 4 Cs will increasingly define and explain global strategic patterns as they unfold. However, this growing openness and broader participation in strategic affairs necessitates an order of magnitude more information—both raw data and actionable intelligence—on actors, motivations, and relationships. MapStory has the potential to help the world to crowd source, curate, quickly filter, process and utilize spatio-temporal representations of these. The task before us is to create a dynamic map of the new human geography. This map must be generated from a wide spectrum of sources from census and surveys to online social media; it must capture the dyads of influence among a wide range of players on multiple levels; and it must be flexible to accommodate the multiple and shifting identities which increasingly characterize connected populations. Policy-makers needed such analytical tools yesterday and still need them today. As a global community, we have the opportunity to collectively build the MapStory global data commons to speak truth to power, and to bring clarity to the patterns shaping an uncertain world.
Parag Khanna is a leading geo-strategist, world traveler and author. Presently a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, he is author of the international best-sellers How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance (2011) and The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (2008).