Supply Chains as Civic Media

Knowing where things come from is fundamental to humanity. Things are very different when they come from different places. We might speak of terroir as the earth in the food, the unique sense of locale imparting an irreplaceable difference that cannot be found in another place. The provenance of a work tells us the importance of not only where something has come from, but when it was created and who it was that fashioned it. Ancient vessels in Pompeii bear the eternal mark of Vesuvinum, and shelves of China are still identified by their geographic namesake. New terms in new disciplines all center themselves around the specific origins of production, seeking to follow the path of circumstances and making that lends the unique sense to the works of art and engineering that become the everyday objects of our lives.

With supply chains we talk about traceability, to follow the source through every link on the chain. Environmental impact, climate change, conflict minerals and human rights abuses; these are problems in the logistical realities underpinning global trade. The obligation to endure gives us the right to know, and knowing is the only way for us to make sense of the scope of our society. It brings a renewed sense of humanity to our purchasing practices to define our relationships with things as relationships with places and with people. Sourcemap is an initiative to make public information on the source of products and their supply chains so that we can make informed choices about their social and environmental impact. Developed by the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group and the MIT Center for Civic Media, Sourcemap has grown over the past few years, and I’d like to devote just a few words to telling you where we’ve come from.

We created Sourcemap to allow anyone—businesses, consumers, journalists and researchers—to share the stories of global supply chains and their impacts on the world. Since our site became publicly accessible, we’ve been fortunate enough to have some wonderful individuals and organizations contribute to our work. We have over three thousand published maps and over six thousand mapmakers. Each day the site features new items contributed by entrepreneurs, brand enthusiasts, students and researchers. Some are carefully researched case studies of unique and unfamiliar products. Some are personal explorations of where someone is traveling, or an investigation into what they bought at the store that day. Each of them is a testament to the curiosity about the things that occupy our lives and where they came from before they got to us. There are sourcemaps of everything from an electric car to a detonator for blasting oil wells, from supplier networks of airplanes to carbon accounting for teleconferencing, from the industrial food on your plate to the small supply chains of local cuisine.

Bringing consumers and producers into the same dialogue has become a cornerstone of the work. We not only have the right to know where something comes from, we want producers to have the freedom to say. These two groups—those who consume and those who produce—have been separate too long. They have grown apart not only in our minds, but in their placement in the world. To bring them together is to tie together communities from opposite sides of the world, to untangle the knots that have bound our understanding of global production and global supply chains.


Housed in the MIT Media Lab, Sourcemap began its life surrounded by people in the midst of production. Making things—things with blinking lights and beeping sounds. We began to ask questions about these things. What is the impact of a modern product? If we wanted to make it more sustainable, what material would we use? Should it be local, renewable, or recycled? We built something to answer these questions for product designers at the Media Lab, but we soon realized that everyone makes design choices: planning a trip, stocking a shelf, or putting a meal together. All of these decisions bring together disparate components from around the globe. And if we are all designers, then we should all be informed about our choices and the impact they can have on the world.

The growth of the local food movement brought together individuals deeply concerned with the sourcing of ingredients in their own communities. Our earliest collaboration involved a local food chef and caterer, Robert Harris, who was interested in sharing his sourcing practices with his customers. Sourcemap allowed him to create a menu that showed customers exactly where their food comes came from. In the summer months, when the majority of Robert’s food is sourced locally, this practice connects customers with not only the ingredients in their food, but with the local community of New England farmers who grow it.

Through early fieldwork in the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland, we met people sensitive to the beauty of the land around them and the fragile community it supports. It is a community in search of a place in the larger world—looking to continue a specific way of life and sustain the people who practice it. We met a hotel owner who wanted to offset her guests’ carbon footprint, reinvesting it in the preservation of the forests they had come to see. We met a local butcher who wanted to understand the carbon footprint of his business. He discovered that the transportation of his native cattle, sheep and pork is only a minor part of the life cycle impact compared to the practices his suppliers adopt in raising the animals. Sam Faircliff, who runs the Cairngorn Brewery, saw that her local industry relies on a bottling plant in central England. Building a plant at her facility drops the distance a bottle of beer travels by two-thirds, and improves competitiveness, creates jobs, and strengthens the region. There is more than one kind of sustainability, and this experience in the Highlands revealed that it was just as much about people as it was about things.

Sourcemap provides information about where things come from, and in doing so it presents a particular narrative of the trip products make before they get to us. There is a necessary role for educators and journalists to use this information to develop research, synthesize it with other perspectives, and tell new stories that situate a product’s place in our world. Futurecraft at MIT, was an important developmental force, and the role of educational components in Sourcemap has continued with classes at NYU and Parsons. The Parsons’ project led to the work of master’s student Jennifer Sharpe, who was able to map and film a video documentary revealing the supply chain behind a line of organic clothing. At the show, Organic by John Patrick, clothing was shown alongside maps and videos detailing the larger process of manufacture and sourcing. One side of the gallery was filled with the flash of cameras as the clothing was modeled, on the other side a film showed the sheep farm were the wool comes and the shops and craftspeople responsible for making it into finished garments. In cases like this one, food and clothing connect us to not only each other, but to the natural world that provides the possibility for their production.

Less close to home, we’ve seen instructors use Sourcemap with their students in numerous locations, Boston and New York, but also in California and Montana, France and Slovakia, New Zealand and Australia. We’ve traveled to see the social impact of cotton farming in India and gotten a firsthand perspective on fair trade. A collaboration with the University of Montana helped students to understand food production issues that are a critical factor in Montana’s future sustainability. These journalism students were able to map the fragile state of their food economy, as the raw materials necessary to produce beef and grain products must leave the state to be processed into finished foods. In each of these classrooms, Sourcemap is mobilized by communities that are displaced by the disjunctures of global supply chains and local economic, cultural and social forces.


This project comes from an appreciation for the role of the material world in our daily lives. It has, from the beginning, been about understanding how we can have more respect and appreciation for material culture. Things cannot speak, but if they could, what would they say? It is easy to ask them what they do, but they are otherwise too silent. There is no easy answer for the role of objects in our lives. It is not about passing universal judgment on which things are local, organic, green, or good. As we saw in the Highlands, communities have unique needs and they need to understand the supply chains that involve them to make choices that are sustainable over the long-term. Things mean different things to different people, and the solution is to let the things do the talking.

Sourcemap has evolved significantly since the first few days when we scratched out a design for a map of where things come from. The team has grown. We have begun architecting the next generation of Sourcemap. We have formed an initiative to unravel the mysteries of footprints and impacts. We’ve taken trips around the world on a mission to connect communities of consumers with communities of producers. Volunteers from digital media, business, design, and journalism have offered their time and effort to make the project more effective and more inclusive. Each map begins when someone asks—just as we did when we began our work—Where does this come from?

As part of this evolution, we look to the announcement of a complete new release of Sourcemap, built with the efforts of the growing team at Sourcemap, and the release’s chief architect, Reed Underwood. There are also a few changes in the way we do things. Sourcemap is now, the crowd-sourced directory of product supply chains and carbon footprints. Through work with companies, non-profit organizations, experts, and everyday people, we hope that one day will allow us to make sustainable choices about the products and services we encounter. At the same time, we will focus on Supply Chain Studies, and the research dedicated to understanding the fundamental issues at stake in global logistics.

The Brundtland commissioned defined sustainability as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations.” Nothing is sustainable universally, some things will be sustainable for some communities, and some will be for others. For us, sustainability gives us a connection with the past as we look to the future. It is the opportunity to learn from our mistakes while appreciating the legacy that has been handed down to us. To understand our community and our culture we must act like archaeologists, but what we practice is an archaeology of the present. It is possible to know where things come from. Instead of waiting to position the everyday objects of our lives from a future a hundred years from now, we must begin to unravel the origins of their people and places today.