Should the term asset map be put into room 101?

Have you ever watched room 101? The premise of the show is to invite a panel member to offer their frustrations, with a view to persuading the host that what is presented should be entered into room 101 – never to be seen again. For those with a love of the modern classics, the concept originates from the room 101 described in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. This will be a series of three blogs where we will invite you to be the host and decide if what we discuss is worthy of keeping or sending to room 101.



The first thing on offer to room 101 is the use of the term ‘asset mapping’ in ABCD community building practice. Whilst the process and practice of asset mapping is an essential community building method, the term is beginning to blur with various different forms of data gathering and analysis; such as where local people can access services. Does this miss the point? There are five clear arguments we hope to make to persuade our host and audience to join us in reviewing this term:



  1. Asset-mapping was never intended to be about data gathering by institutions but about relationship building between neighbours. It feels like there is a move away from this neighbourly connection, muddying the waters for thoughtful citizens hoping to grow and develop their own asset maps.


  1. We support a thoughtful movement away from asset mapping because if it isn’t done and owned by community in an ongoing iterative and deeply discursive manner, it can be misused to feed the agendas of outside agencies. At worst asset-mapping can turn into asset stripping, and result in volunteers being recruited as cheap alternatives to programmes and services previously funded by the state. Asset-mapping was never intended to be about scoping out alternatives to funded programmes but about enlarging the commons and free space for mutuality and community. Sadly, it is being used this way and it’s time to call these people out!


  1. Map is a tricky word. Firstly, a map implies some sort of end product that can be held in your hand and is readable by anyone who buys it. Secondly, maps tend to be fairly permanent; think of a map of the Cairngorms national park. You could pick up a map from 50 years ago and still find your way home! Asset maps are different to this; people change, new neighbours move in and out, new groups pop up and fizzle away; the map changes and it is dynamic in nature.


  1. A lot of groups are mapping outside the context of place. While there’s nothing wrong with this and people can do what they like, it’s a missed opportunity as place is where everything comes together potentially and where we get out of silos. But it’s also a misunderstanding of the original description of asset-mapping which really just puts a name to what happens when indigenous communities act together effectively in identifying, connecting and mobilising what they have to secure what they need.


  1. Lastly, to use a building metaphor, asset mapping is analogous to the scaffolding that goes up around a house. We have been witness to a number of examples where outside agencies have done an asset-map to or for communities and assumed they had completed some action step. Imagine a developer putting up scaffolding around a building you wanted developed and claiming they were finished simply because they’d erected the scaffolding. Well that’s exactly what people who are doing asset mapping to or for communities are saying to those communities: ‘we’ve done the map, so now your community is built’. But in fact, no connecting has been done!! More importantly it was done by the wrong people. Asset mapping should be done and owned by local residents.



In conclusion, it is pertinent to be reminded that ‘the map is not the territory’. It’s also important to remember there is no one map in diverse and inclusive communities, but rather a mosaic, yet to be connected. While the community asset map can potentially counter the institutional map of needs and deficits, it can also confuse and frustrate attempts at genuine citizen-led, place based action. Here’s a simple case in point: a community builder working at street level, before supporting people to start mapping assets, will tend to start by inviting them to go into discovery mode with each other, to find out what motivates local people to take shared action. What are their dreams, concerns, the skills they’d like to share to contribute to the wellbeing of their community? Then they begin the process of supporting citizens to connect those motivations to the assets in their community. There are many examples of this being done the other way around, starting with the assets and then asking people what they’d like to do with those assets, with quite mixed results. While there’s an exception to every rule, are we putting the cart before the horse or perhaps, the assets before the motivations? Could this back to front approach be a consequence of too much ABCD by workshop, as opposed to actual community building?



So our question to you? Will you join us in putting the term ‘asset mapping’ as a term, not a practice, into Room 101?



Cormac Russell and Shaun Burnett

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  • It’s a good read as always. What I identified from the blog was the use of asset mapping and the motivations being at fault rather than the term itself. I never see the merit in dropping a term because then you lose the chance to challenge it’s misuse and communities experiencing the practice lose the ability to check if it’s valid. I would like to see an ethics code for agencies and consultants that acts as a reference guide to both. I don’t want to see the construction of any governance institution but a common ethical framework for agencies and individuals that is easily accessible.
    Everyone puts a lot of faith in “experts” as this movement grows and is band waggoned by agencies and sharks honest practice will be harder to recognise in a pool of misguided terms.

    May 31, 2016 at 8:26 am
    • Ana Biurrun

      Tks John, very thoughtful, are you thinking of something a long the lines of a Hippocratic oath for community builders: first do no harm kind of narrative? Cormac

      May 31, 2016 at 10:32 am
    • I really like the idea of there being a set of core values (ethical framework) to guide people. I listened to a podcast by John McKnight at the ABCD Festival and he said he and Jody deliberately haven’t marketed ABCD, that its power is in grassroots, word of mouth growth. I think that’s a pretty radical, exciting way of trusting the world. The danger is people think they’re “doing ABCD” when they’re not, at best they might be doing a version of AB. I get the frustration with people thinking ABCD is a model rather than a way of seeing (in the same way that people see person centred counselling as a set of listening skills rather than a way of being) but I think something that expresses in simple, accessible, as easily as translatable as possible, language what our shared values are would be really helpful. It would of course need to be a living, breathing thing to guide us not a doctrine to bind us….

      June 1, 2016 at 8:40 am
  • John Gow

    If I had a pound for every agency and professional service that has asked me for my ‘Asset Map’ I might have enough for a round in a posh pub in Cheltenham! You can’t view an Asset Map from afar. It seems to me that an Asset Map changes/grows/morphs with every conversation you have. It is never static, but flows like a river into a large tidal lake with amazing views from every bank. You can’t transport it, instead you invite others to dive in and enjoy the water. Some swim while others just paddle. There are even those that can dive down and touch the bottom! It will never make real sense until you have at least got your feet wet..

    May 31, 2016 at 12:53 pm
    • this is so beautifully put John. May I quote you on this?

      November 20, 2019 at 10:20 pm
  • Hello both
    Thanks for a good post here- I’m inclined to agree with what you’re saying ( though am always conscious when working with ‘everyday’ people – who don’t generally use possibly like service land speak – that I don’t tend to use phrases such as abcd, asset mapping etc) but it, ie mapping, is I think a useful construct and I find that lots of people do find it a really valuable way into thinking about their neighbourhood/ community differently? And often people are really surprised as to how much is there that they maybe didn’t know about….my other, more general observation is that I think we ( namely practitioners) ruminate and agonise about such issues (a lot) more than others do…..?
    I do think the point about abcd workshops ‘versus’ actual community building is really valid too: we need more of the latter but, we have to be mindful ( I think) that many people, often like minded and sympathetic still find hearing about abcd as a bit of a Road to Damascus type experience! So we need a means for spreading the word?
    I’m on holiday this week hence my long winded response!

    May 31, 2016 at 5:40 pm
  • I am seeing the same thing here with big institutions such as Health agencies. I vote we find a more useful way of describing the process that makes it clear that it is about the citizens discovering what they have. When we train our partners here in Richmond in ABCD, we put the emphasis on listening not on asset mapping. I think that has really helped our partners not make it about mapping things but discovery. Great post, I look forward to future conversations.

    May 31, 2016 at 9:10 pm
  • roger milthorp

    Sadly I have colleagues expecting or keeping databases spreadsheets and pins in maps!! Oh dear. Probably more to do with organisational culture than the concept itself.

    October 21, 2016 at 3:51 pm

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