Mapping community action and connections in rural Derbyshire.

Back in April we hosted a workshop with 50 community organisations connected to community action in Amber Valley, Derbyshire. It was part of a collaboration with Understory a new digital mapping tool that allows communities to reveal the hidden connections that bind them together.

Thanks to the workshop and the fifty organisations who contributed, you can now take a tour of the Amber Valley Community Network Map. It features 332 different groups and organisations bound together via a complex tangle of 1672 connections across 20 areas of shared purpose.

For anyone curious about using or being part of the map. Below is a bit more info on how the map was made, some of the conversations and learning that have emerged, and why we think making relationships visible in this way, can play a really important role in enabling community powered change.

What’s It All About?
Understory is a collaboration between two seemingly very different companies: Onion Collective, a group of place based social entrepreneurs and next economists from Somerset, and Free Ice Cream, a design studio dedicated to playful participation in complex systems. It has been designed as a participatory action learning tool, so that power resides with communities, rather than data being extracted. The team are currently working with 30 places from across the UK to map community action and build a macro-level understanding of how social capital and resilience works in different places.

Amber Valley is one of the first 10 places in the UK to collaborate with Understory and try out the new platform.

Why is it important?
We know that the relationships we’re inside of and how we are connected together as individuals, organisations, groups, and places matters. It’s been proven again and again that relationships play a crucial role in our health and happiness at every scale of organising. That who we are able to call on and connect with, in good times and in bad, has a massive impact on what we’re able to achieve and how well we are able to deal with challenges.

We also know that the building of this relational infrastructure, just like any other infrastructure, takes dedicated time, skills, care and investment and that this labour is often taken for granted, devalued, ignored, unrecognised, unsupported and unfunded.

Understory aims to make relationships more visible, so that communities can see more clearly what they’re inside of and work together to explore how they can turn their relationships and connections into mobilised community action.

How does the mapping work?
The Understory process brings together different organisations involved in civic and community action into a single mapping workshop. Everyone from sports clubs to council officers, theatre makers to community gardeners.

Our session was co-hosted with Amber Valley CVS at Greenwich Community Sports Hub in Ripley with some people also able to join us online. During the session, everyone answers a series of questions that begins to create a network node map in real time.

Understory Mapping Workshop in Ripley, April 2023

During the workshop, the fifty organisation who participated, named a further ten people and organisations both within and beyond Amber Valley that were important to their work and achieving their purpose. As the map began to emerge in real time, it was pretty staggering to see the volume and range of different groups and organisations active in the area. A total of 332 organisations were named linked together via a complex tangle of 1672 connections & relationships.

What does it all mean?
A month after the mapping workshop, Georgie, Sally and Sam from the Understory team joined us for a follow-up workshop at Strutts in Belper to talk through how to navigate the map and what the data was revealing about resilience, social capital and relational infrastructure in Amber Valley. It was a really fascinating conversations with around twenty of the organisations originally involved.

The tool is built on the understanding that the people who live in a place already hold all the insights & knowledge of that place, but that this knowledge isn’t collectively visible to those people. During the follow-up session it definitely felt like the map provided a way for people to see their community from a new perspective and start conversations from a different place. Acknowledging that there is always way more going on than any one organisation, sector or service can ever know and that working together across these silos is the only way to achieve meaningful change.

Some people were a bit bamboozled by the complexity and messiness of the map. We’re not used to seeing data contextualised in this way. But making this complex web of relationships more visible felt really powerful. Like spraying water on a spiders web, helping us to see the complex systems and structures that are shaping what is and isn’t possible for us as individuals, organisations and communities.

The map doesn’t provide any answers, and we’re only really scratching the surface in terms of exploring and analysing the data. But what feels clear, is that if we want to take a collective approach to change and we want communities to have some agency over the way that change comes about, this first step of understanding how people are currently connected and what relationships they’re currently inside of, feels essential.

What next?
We want to put communities and their collective creativity at the heart of making positive change in the places that they live. We want communities to feel more confident about leading on change and we want public agencies to learn alongside communities about how to shift more power and resources to a grass roots level.

We’re working with Understory and a small group of grass roots community groups to explore some new ideas about how we might work together to test the mapping process at a more hyper local neighbourhood level.

Watch this space for more details and get in touch if you’d like to chat more.

>> If you’d like to be added to the Amber Valley Community Network Map get in touch with us at and we’ll share a link.

>> Anyone can take a tour of the Amber Valley Community Network Map so feel free to dive in or share with anyone who might find it useful or interesting.

Everyone who contributes to the map gets access to the full map and the data it contains as well as added features and filters to explore the map. To add yourself to the map get in touch

Rachel (Make/Shift), Georgie and Sally (Onion Collective), Sam (Free Icecream) at The University of Derby Civic Lab Conference in July 2023.

Make/Shift s a small team collaborating with others to create projects which support communities in Amber Valley to make, do, create, repair, grow, share, care for and connect with what matters to them in the places that they live. Their vision is for Amber Valley to be a place full of makers, where everyone’s creativity matters as part of everyday life.

Onion Collective is a social enterprise working to tackle social, cultural and environmental injustice in Watchet, while fighting for a brighter, distributed and attached economic future across the UK. They deliver wide-reaching and ambitious regeneration projects that are holistic in nature, benefiting people and planet. Locally, we aim to create purposeful and interesting jobs, build local economic resilience, widen cultural engagement and enhance aspiration. With a macro lens, we are showcasing what is possible when you put belonging, connection and hope at the fore.

Free Ice Cream is a design studio that uses playful design methodologies to make existing structures visible, help people ask better questions of them, and imagine alternatives. To do this they specialise in the participatory mapping and playing of complex systems, and creating the conditions to imagine alternative futures and infrastructures. They also work with activists, campaigners, civil society and academia to influence policy.

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