Sustainable Development

How maps can help guide us to a better future

'Maps are not just informative; they can also inspire optimism'

Robert Muggah
Co-founder, SecDev Group and Co-founder, Igarapé Institute
Ian Goldin
Professor of Globalization and Development; Director, Oxford Martin Programme on Technological and Economic Change, Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford
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  • Enormous progress across measures of wellbeing alongside widening inequalities can be appreciated when “mapped out”;
  • Maps can show how, overall, digital divides are shrinking in many parts of the world;
  • They also illustrate positive shifts in governments, businesses and citizens reducing their carbon footprints.

Why are maps so popular? Their tremendous capacity to convey complex ideas quickly is one reason. The fact humans are hardwired for maps is another; they appeal directly to our enlarged cerebral cortex.

Have you read?

Maps are not just informative; they can also inspire optimism. In constant need of renewal, they reveal progress whilst signalling how a combination of political leadership, smart incentives and regulatory pressure can improve the human condition.

We were so convinced of maps’ ability to generate awareness of our present challenges and ways to build a better future, that we wrote a book which shows precisely this: Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 years.

These days, anyone with a laptop or mobile phone can access digital maps that fan out from the cellular to the celestial scale at the click of a button. From NASA and the European Space Agency to Google, ESRI, and Planet Labs, there is a proliferation of stunning high-resolution maps that project changes in real-time.

At a time when we feel inundated with data, maps help cut through the noise and offer deeper insight into our transforming world.

Climate-change laid bare

Arguably the most significant threat to our collective survival is climate change. In 2020 alone, raging bushfires in Australia killed as many as 3 billion animals; California’s forest fires charred more than 4 million acres – about 5% of the surface area of the entire state; and intensified deforestation in the Amazon and the Pantanal threatens to turn the world’s largest tropical forests into its biggest savannah.

Today, several times more people die of pollution-related causes – around 8.8 million people a year – than from all wars, terrorism, murders and suicides combined. Maps show clearly this unfortunate state of affairs and put the threats we face in perspective.

Deaths from air pollution vs lethal violence
Deaths from air pollution vs lethal violence

The only way to stall global warming is a rapid transition to a zero-carbon world. Curbing forest fires, building more sustainably and eating less meat are all crucial – so is a wholesale shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

US energy transition - 1984-2020
US energy transition in 1984
US energy transition - 1984-2020
US energy transition in 2020

The good news is that growing numbers of governments, businesses and citizens are taking action to reduce their carbon footprints and maps confirm this positive shift was underway even before the COVID-19 pandemic. This change in priorities is reflected by campaigns involving tens of millions of young people from Fridays for Future to Extinction Rebellion.

Digital opportunities and divides mapped out

The spread of the internet is contributing to unprecedented educational and economic opportunities and new forms of solidarity around the world, whilst simultaneously deepening polarization and digital vulnerabilities in unexpected ways.

The internet has become the world’s nervous system; those who are not connected risk not seeing, hearing or being able to participate in what is happening around them — lesser still making use of the goods and services industry that now generates a quarter of the global economy.

Number of internet users by country - 1990
Number of internet users by country - 1990
Number of internet users by country - 2000
Number of internet users by country - 2000
Number of internet users by country - 2020
Number of internet users by country - 2020

Maps make clear the share of the world’s population using the internet over time. They expose how, overall, digital divides are shrinking, but they also reveal how some parts of the world are still digitally disconnected. In wealthy countries, more than 80% of the population has access to the internet, whereas the average access for developing countries is just 43%.

This gap is especially pronounced and consequential in Africa and parts of South Asia. Maps hammer home the point: these regions' vast and youthful workforces risk missing out on online education and opportunities in the new digital economy.

More educated than ever

Maps show us how most people living outside of North America and Western Europe had fewer than four years of education in 1950. Roughly 70 years later, the average number of years of schooling in these regions has doubled.

The number of children and adolescents out of school has also plummeted in recent decades. In 1970, roughly 27% of primary-aged school children were out of school; today, it is closer to 8%.

While COVID-19 is profoundly disrupting elementary, secondary and tertiary schooling, the world has come an extraordinarily long way in a very short period of time.

Mean years of schooling: 1950-2020
Mean years of schooling worldwide in 1950
Mean years of schooling: 1950-2020
Mean years of schooling worldwide in 2020

Not everyone is benefiting equally from the education revolution – at least 120 million children are still out of school – but, on balance, the story is overwhelmingly positive.

Life extension

Notwithstanding the many threats and challenges on the horizon, more people are living longer and healthier lives than at any time in history.

Life expectancy by country - 1960 and 2020
Life expectancy by country in 1960
Life expectancy by country - 1960 and 2020
Life expectancy by country in 2020

For more than 99% of our existence, humans rarely lived more than 25 years on average. Then something extraordinary happened: average life expectancies tripled in the space of roughly a century.

The pace of progress varies: in Japan, people live to an average age of 85; in Central African Republic, life expectancy is closer to 53. In the coming decades, virtually all population growth will come through ageing rather than increased births, except in Africa which is the only continent where median ages are below 30.

The prolongation of life is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, with the darkening shades of red on the maps a reflection of progress. The few countries in light hues depict those tragically left behind.

The tremendous achievements of the past century have brought us closer to conquering enduring risks from child mortality to measles. Greater openness and connectivity have increased incomes and lengthened life expectancies and maps show it.

While, on average, humans have witnessed enormous improvements across most measures of wellbeing, these same averages mask widening inequalities.

Among the greatest threats we face is the short-termism of our governments, companies and societies and their failure to address systemic risks and mobilize the collective action needed to resolve them. In the end, the best way to determine the future is for each of us to shape it and for our governments to work together to address the threats we all face.

As we face a more complex and uncertain world gaining perspectives is more important than ever. The maps we present in Terra Incognita show that change is possible and reveal the challenges which now need to be a priority for action.

At times, it feels as if we are faced with an overwhelming impasse and there is a danger that we succumb to pessimism and paralysis. This would be precisely the wrong thing to do. Maps help remind us that solutions are to be found not by retreating from our challenges, but via closer collaboration in order to overcome our shared trials.

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