What's in a name?

As you can see from the “Why Portolan?” section, a portolan is an early harbour-finding chart to guide mariners safely to their destinations. Portolans were used extensively in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Mediterranean region. They were drawn on vellum, artistically decorated – and surprisingly accurate for their times.

I guess I should tell you why I have this fascination with old sailing charts and maps from a bygone time. And why it has anything to do with the services provided by our company.

Portolan atlasThe simple answer is that it’s born out of reading the accounts of explorers and seeing their adventures laid out on criss-crossed lines, with cherubs blowing wind directions and strange sea monsters ready to attack the pitifully small sailing ships. 

The words themselves were powerful enough. But the attempt to show where they were and how they got there was even more striking. Why? Because it was visual. I could see it for myself. 

For before me was a map. Filled with things real and things imagined. Wind roses showed the direction of wind, so you use these to plot your course.

But exactly where you were and what lay beyond it was founded on what you could see by day from a tiny vessel afloat on an immense ocean and what you could determine by night and the celestial guiding stars.

What the mapmaker put on the maps of an earlier age of discovery and exploration was often – shall we say – open to interpretation. Interiors of landmasses were dotted with non-existent cities and habitations – complete with place names! Pure speculation. 

Yet looking at these flights of imagination – along with the extraordinary tales of hardship, courage and unbelievable stamina by those who survived to describe what they saw – produced the fascination that I have to this day.

Well, that’s the map side of things. So how does this relate to Portolan Global the company?

I believe the map enthusiasm is really a metaphor. I have an equal fascination, developed and deepened over the years, with public policy and how to reconcile various interests and aspirations in the search for a shared outcome, a common good.

As always, the challenge is how to get there. What is the destination? Where are the guiding lights? From which direction blow the winds of influence? More existentially, how do we avoid foundering on shoals in tempest-tossed seas?

Like a mapmaker, you situate your analysis in the realities and circumstances of where things are. And like the ancient mapmaker, the true artisan, you creatively identify a pathway or course that offers best hope and lowest risk in reaching the desired destination.

Analysis and policy recommendations are logically intertwined. They appeal to governments and policymakers because they have cogency; they are enveloped in rationality and consequence. A will lead to B and then to C (goal).

But they are also conceptual, interpretive and cultural, which means they need a narrative to take them forward and make them compelling. Logic and narrative communicate the interests and policy aims, translating them from concept into (successful) action.

The mapmaker’s artistry and embellishments, as well as the factual information and practical guidance the maps offer, stay imprisoned unless these “recommendations” are acted upon. They need a narrative to translate them into action, into solutions.

Portolan Global is the mapmaker’s knowledge and art come to life in a world of government relations, industry needs, national security, international political and economic risk, and sustaining the planet against climate change.

I’ve long been fascinated by bringing interests together, identifying a common good, finding policy solutions grounded in reality, and proposing creative pathways to guide the way. Such pathways must be navigable, they must sail on smoothly past perilous ice floes, turbulent tides and opposing winds. They must be communicable and understandable to stakeholders, policymakers and the general public.

Above all, they must have a narrative, binding imagination together with hard analysis and experience. And they must point to action required to reach the destination.

This is what a map does. 

It’s why the company is called “Portolan.” In the next musing, I’ll talk about what the “Global” means.