Tilburg Legend(s): what’s in an icon?

Tilburg is at the heart of a region in the southern Netherlands which has traditionally been very socially innovative. This tradition is celebrated annually during the European Social Innovation Week, recently renamed to the Dear Future week.

The TilburgsAns open source typeface

At the conclusion of this week, the annual Social Innovation Awards are announced. This year’s Runner-Up Award was won by TilburgsAns, a unique initiative by Sander Neijnens and Ivo van Leeuwen, two local graphic designers who developed an open source “typeface for a sans serif city” of letters and icons. From the jury report:

The project especially focuses on Tilburg residents. By using the typeface, they connect with the city and each other. Still, its use is not restricted to Tilburgers alone. Also, people outside of the city can download TilburgsAns and apply it, creating a virtual bond with Tilburg. For the initiators, TilburgsAns is not about city marketing or city branding, but it is an innovative art project with the aim of uniting people through (visual) language. Furthermore, TilburgsAns makes visible – in an innovative way – the material and immaterial heritage of the city via its icons.

This immediately piqued my interest. As you know, I am an ardent believer in the power of visualization and mapping to build, strengthen, and link communities.  Furthermore, I have been a long-time resident of Tilburg, a city I have come – like so many other non-natives – to appreciate over the years as a hotbed of cultural and social innovation.  It is not so much a remarkable city architecture-wise. What makes it such a pleasure to live here are the interesting and compassionate people and the multitude of inspiring initiatives they organize.

On icons

In my CommunitySensor mapping methodology, icons play a crucial role. They are at the core of the visual language, I use to map the linkages and collaborations taking place in community networks. However, for sensemaking between communities, we need standard icons. For example, in the map below of a community network mapping project in Malawi we see how  standard icons act as “conceptual bridges” between two projects, outlining how they have activities, stakeholders, and resources in common.

CommunitySensor standardized community network mapping icons

What interested me so much about the TilburgsAns icon set, is that they are the opposite of standardized icons. Each of the icons is unique, capturing part of that distinctive “sense of Tilburg community”. Together, they define the essence of the city, its people, initiatives and events, sites & sights, and language.

TilburgsAns unique city icons

This contrast between both icons sets and their uses – making connections across communities versus communicating the identity of a city – really got my mind racing. Perhaps, effective community network mapping needs a mix of both: (1) unique community icons to visualize what the community is about, strengthen bonds and ties between community members, and clarify its essence to the outside world – and (2) standardized community mapping icons to catalyze inter-communal sensemaking, collaboration, and “knowledge weaving for social innovation”.

The Tilburg Legend(s) map

Lots of food for thought, here, but instead of going off on an academic tangent, I decided to do something practical to get a better sense of the “deep meaning” of TilburgsAns, and  to make a contribution to the Tilburg commons myself, building on the magnificent work of Sander and Ivo. Instead of just seeing the list of Tilburg icons, why not – literally – put them on the map?

To this purpose, I created two Google maps, the English Tilburg Legend(s) map and the Dutch Tilburgse Iconen, playing with the notions of legends defining Tilburg both story and icon-wise.

The Tilburg Legend(s) map

On each map, the relevant icons from the TilburgsAns list have been ordered in the categories People, Initiatives & Events, and Sites & Sights. Only the TilburgsAns word-icons without a clear geographical reference have been left out. By hovering over an item in the table of contents on the left hand side, you can see where it is situated on the map. By clicking a table of contents entry or an icon on the map, a brief description is shown, copied from the TilburgsAns entry.  For example, when clicking the icon of Peerke Donders – one of the iconic “sons of the city” –  the following description is shown:

The Google Maps description of the Peerke Donders icon

When next clicking the link within the description, one is taken to the actual TilburgsAns page for that description, which – besides that text – also shows the full-size icon, plus links to further information:

The TIlburgsAns description of Peerke Donders showing both the enlarged icon and links to further information.

Like so many things in social innovation, this mapping experiment  is only a work-in-progress. The map is far from complete, and comes with many technical limitations, for instance, Google Maps only showing small icons or rather crude descriptions. Still, it has many potential applications, for example in providing a different, off-the-beaten-track view on the city to new residents and visitors.

The experiment also shows how one social innovation may lead to another, in often unexpected ways. Together, these social innovations form a web of catalysts for social change, strengthening our precious common good. In desperate times of societal polarization, alienation, and fragmentation, it is such initiatives that are potent symbols of that there is still much worth preserving and fighting for together.

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