The Strategy Toolkit - September 2023 edition
Excerpt: Strategy & Geography
According to the Association of American Geographers, geography “is the study of the complex, unfolding relationships between people and the land they live on.”* Or, as the writer Adam Gopnik pithily observes, the study of “faces, places and spaces.”**
** Gopnik, A., “Faces, Places, Spaces,” The New Yorker (October 29 & November 5 2012): 108-116
Most people, when first introduced to the study of science, are exposed to the trio of physics, chemistry and biology. Similarly, with the study of social sciences, they first meet the duo of history and geography. And although there exist sub-disciplines known as the geography of history and the history of geography, the main distinction remains that history is about time and geography is about place. The physicality of geography therefore will be our guide in this chapter on strategy and geography. People recognise the importance of place in survival and inevitably have developed strategies and tactics to identify, understand, acquire, and maintain place in many ways, at many levels.
The iconic representation of geography is the simple, humble map, an illustration of places in relation to others. So innocent. So powerful. Just look at the geopolitically strategic use to which China puts its version of the map of the South China Sea. Or Russia its version of its boundary with Ukraine. Or the border between Peru and Bolivia. And so on throughout the post-colonial regions in Africa, the Middle East, and southern and south-east Asia.
As Edward Tufte has shown*, mastering and using the techniques of visualising data conveys strategic advantages. When applied to mapmaking, these techniques allow the powerful to convey power.
* Tufte, E., “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” Graphics Press 1983; https://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_vdqi
As one reviewer aptly put it, “there is no such thing as an objective map.”*
* Anonymous review of “A History of the World in Twelve Maps” by Jerry Brotton (Allen Lane 2012), The Economist (September 1 2012): 82
In his book, Jerry Brotton, of Queen Mary University of London, describes the complex history of mapmaking through analysis of a few exemplary maps, from those of Ptolemy in 150 AD through the Mappa Mundi in the British medieval era, through to the present-day digital geographic information systems (GIS) such as Google Earth.
“Mapmakers operate in environments of subjective knowledge. Their work is influenced by politics and patrons, regional assumptions and religious beliefs, all of which jostles with the science in determining what a map looks like and what it is used for. Mapmakers may be geographers and cartographers, but they can also be artists and imperialists, storytellers and propagandists.”*
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Strategy Toolkit to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.