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Informal Community Boundary Spanners Build Knowledge Bridges to the World at Large

Now that I know what I am looking for, after the two rounds of data analysis focusing on the links between the training experience and the real world unassisted experience of the facilitators, and the kinds of beneficial outcomes experienced by the participants, some effects of which were explicated by participants reflecting more than a year later on their participation experience, I can see the informal role of socio-cognitive boundary spanners that certain well-networked community members play in their extensive social networks.

Here is an article from today’s translated into English news:

It struck me forcibly, especially after hearing the thoughts of local community members in rural Finland last week, that this novel and important and relevant information was existentially being gatekept by organizing a webinar. Not all immigrant workers might feel confident using information and communication technologies (ICTs) required to access a webinar in three different European languages, but not French. Only as an example of the kinds of inadvertent socio-cognitive barriers that exist even within well integrated communities. If one arrived as an adult with foreign background basic education, then one may not have learnt all the nuances of group interactions that are assumed by adults who have all been socialized within the same systemic design (the pre-school to University entrance education of 8, 9, or 12 years).

This is the sort of information that requires sensemaking in the group together with someone who can find out more regarding the group’s particular context and interests and re-interpret that back to the group, facilitating the discussion with problem definition activities. What my dissertation work is doing is problematizing the activities required of this “someone” into a rapid enskillment program offered to volunteers from the communities, and providing a practical learning experience.

However, I recalled in time that such immigrant worker communities would already have their spokespeople and ‘boundary spanners’ who may be a degree more educated, and had exposure to modern technological lifestyles. They would join te webinar, on behalf of the groups waiting for them to explain it all to them in their own contextual vernacular. This is the very definition of the two step flow of information that Tushman referred to as boundary spanning activities that facilitate the innovation process, for ex. between R&D labs and the outside world (Tushman, 1977). Can it operationalized through prototyping and testing?

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Lost and Found: The Music of my Keyboard

I have been super productive over the past week and I can only point to the creative rush of energy that fieldwork with team members as sounding board can provide. What struck me however was the fact that while I cannot deny the music of my keyboard has returned, I must admit that it is not the same music as before. Which implies that what is emerging now is a new song. The magic of the keyboard is in the music that the keys make when I type.

The new music is slower and more deliberate, yet lighter on its feet and nimble with practice and experience. I’m learning to recognize its changes of rhythm and beat. I must indulge myself in making more more frequently. Spring in the Arctics demands it.

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Day 2, Exploratory Discovery and Sensemaking in rural Ostrobothnia, Finland #taiketukee

For design before design, I prefer immersion in the field location and alternating thinking and writing with observations and interviews in order to tightly frame the problem space and the social design challenge. My RQ is whether the application of the guiding first principles of the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design research (also known as cooperative design, see Bodker et al., 1988) helps novice facilitators shift from acquiring novel knowledge and technology (in the dictionary sense of tools) to building their confidence in putting the knowledge into action/practice?

It will be a long time before this question is answered. At the moment, on Day 2 of my fieldwork in rural Ostrobothnia, I am fleshing out the concept design of the interventions planned around the interstitial spaces between “arts and culture” and the “environmental sciences” – a burgeoning new interdisciplinary thought stream with some interesting experiments being done in rural France. And not just the introduction of designers and artists in collaborative community sensemaking and storytelling, as done by Vanderlinden; etc; etc, but also facilitating communities sense of their own capacity and agency for creative expression. I’m working in collaboration with a visual artist who recently worked with connecting the tactile experience of embroidery with the forest mosses that were under pressure from encroaching human activities on their natural habitat.

It opens up explorations of the curatorial nature of facilitation of participatory groups, and the transient nature of experiences that may have long lasting impacts such as a change of perception. An example from the Kenyan fieldwork where the process and framework were first developed is the last legacy of women’s experience of cognitive justice, and the recognition of their expertise and lived experience as valid sources of knowledge; delivered to them in the form of simple thinking tools for planning and prioritizing investments as micro-entrepreneurs.

Today we will meet a forester.

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Fieldwork after three years #taiketukee

Ostrobothnia, Finland, 24th May 2022

Sitting here at the end of Day 1, Fieldwork on the local culture of coastal Ostrobothnia in Finland, the oldest settled part of the country and where the language and cultural minority of Finland, the country – only 5.2% of the total population, the Swedish-Finnish community, is in the majority. We drove down from Espoo. I had taken the metro in from Helsinki before transfering to the car driven by a grandchild of the region, who had actually grown up in another European country and only came for the summer holidays until finally relocating to attend my University.

All I want to reflect on today is the novel experience of fieldwork in a wholly new country and continent, after the very long break since my last Kenya trip in late 2019. Today we bought fish from the fishermen at the fishing harbour. Its a family business and they sell marinades and various homemade things done to fish.

Patriarch of family of coastal fishers with their own fish processing household enterprise. Smoking, canning, fileting, and fresh from their sea farm. Its more sustainable for them as revenue generation is not as seasonally uncertain, and it prevents overfishing.

Its a profession that goes back to the Iron Age or even beyond. Small informal groups of fishers work together to run such a plant, from raw fish inputs to various preserved outputs that have established local customer base in the half hour drive region and often beyond. The shop is usually one family’s business operations, but the fishing and smoking might be more cooperative. Families do compete on establishing reputations for their house marinades. Its a way of preserving fish without over pickling in the asian spice heavy style. I lean towards east asian in my own seafood tastes.

What struck me was the interplay between extremely familiar things from years of fieldwork in the informal economic system of rural East Africa in particular, and rural east Asia (The Visayas Islands in The Philippines), not rural India though, that’s very different, and extremely unfamiliar – lands where the Vikings settled to farm like good Christians. I can build the familiar models. I was extremely happy to note that from my observations of this coastal fishing micro-enterprise it was viable and feasible that the collaborative visual sensemaking tool I used in Kenya among the informal fresh produce wholesalers sourcing perishable produce from the local regional networks would work. Now, whether it would be desirable is an entirely other question and one which I hope to put to the fishers on Friday. After their consent I would work with my artist collaborator to craft social design outputs (in the Nordic tradition of social objects, actions, processes, and structures as the object of design) that would somehow use the arts to help communities recenter themselves as custodians of their own local home environmental ecosystem.

Why they matter to their own communities is something that we’ve seen as an important factor that contributes to participants’ motivation and determination to change their business operations in response to the changing world. Our participants have been selling bananas wholesale by sending around photographs to WhatsApp groups, and running informal m-commerce in the Kenyan capital. Finnish fishermen are as creative and innovative as the Kenyan tomato sellers. I am #taikesupported (#taiketukee) after a competitive peer reviewed application process. This project is a working prototype test of our currently scoped operating model.

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From the Exploratory Musing Dept: What might be social design’s role in the SDGs in the Nordics?

The scope and range for the object of design being the “social” (Koskinen, 2016) in the social welfare states of the Nordics, and I use the happiest one as my base of reference, is vast, varied, and immense. Rich and deep opportunities for practice based learning, research, and interdisciplinary development methodologies.

By refining one’s focus to the human centered knowledge delivery strategy, comprised of approach, process, framework, program design and development, prototyping and iteration, rollout, one begins at the beginning of the social components of the design process and addresses the element that bridges the knowledge of the user and her own lived experiential operating environment and the knowledge of the disciplines and methodologies that act as interface between technology and its end users. I will use the example of the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design research because of its emphasis on its originating legacy and first and guiding principles, rather than on the specific methods and tools packaged within the fundamental process actions – a facilitation or guided discussion by a group on a topic or theme with some objective or goal in mind that ideally is supposed to be of benefit to the participants. Ehn recognized this early with his statement that sometimes the design goal is no more than skills enhancement and tool building to enable and support this process (Ehn, 1993).

Here, then, even facilitation of group work or multidisciplinary design or innovation facilitation – think sticky note laden workshops with ideas flying on to walls will fall under the purview of social design in this sense, as defined by Koskinen (2016; Koskinen and Hush, 2016). Facilitation is the core of the social process of co-design and rarely the focus of researcher attention which, as trained in design themselves, tends to be more attracted to designing novel approaches to problem discovery and problem solving. We look at the delivery of such novel methods and tools, from design and innovation practitioners and researchers, as the design challenge. Light and Akama, and both Light and Akama have studied the facilitation process from the perspective of its impact on the experiences of the participants as part of undergoing the process and using the tools in groups. What stands out is their emphasis on facilitation as the crucial factor influencing the quality of outcomes of the participatory design research process. However, their work does the early groundwork of reflection in practice and the importance of thinking about this chemistry between group and innovation facilitator, since practitioners and researchers have not questioned their own presence.

Even the pandemic adjacent research on various remote facilitation processes were looking  inanimate technologies, whether systems and service design outputs such as the postal service, or the ever popular digital video conferencing platforms. So the important social component was now intermediated by technology that cannot replicate the human embodied experience of the creative energy in the room. We have pulled our hair out over the decades on the challenges posed by textual communication stripping all tone and nuance out of our words, now we cannot even read the room’s response to an idea we raise during brainstorming sessions. We’re guiding the creative and collaborative energy of the group in as much as we’re facilitating their innovation and design muscles into action. When one experiences one’s own sense of one’s capacity for creative expression, one can then pass it on to others by facilitating an experience of it for them to remember. We have empirical data that shows the long term impact of such recognition, self recognition in fact is a precursor to full bodied cognitive justice because you have to learn to look for what you want to see. Such facilitated collaborative activities fostered a sense of agency for adaptation (Vanderlinden et al 2020) and the cognitive justice of recognizing the expertise and experience of vegetable vendors in the informal urban food security ecosystem made them more motivated and determined to develop their own businesses and reach for their goals, regardless of the pandemic’s oncoming shocks and waves.

This can be iterated for application in the Nordic context. I’m conducting exploratory research right now in Ostrobothnia, Finland. More soon.

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Is it engineering or design?

Looking back at the last year, since I began writing again on the blog looking for the magic of my keyboard, I can see how far I have shifted my perspective – one of the goals for the initiating the introspection. Just over a year ago, I was lamenting intangible losses – vocabulary, for example – from immersion in the interwebz for what felt like far too long. If I did not have this means to pull up those thoughts from March 2021, I don’t think I’d have even remembered I had experienced this loss. This implies the faculty for prose composition has returned. So much has occurred over these past 12 months that if I was not taking the time out now, to sit down and reflect, I would not have noticed.

Academically, I received notification on friday past that I’d passed the mid-term doctoral review – a go/no go stage in my studies. I can see the difference between what I’d been writing in February, for a conference paper, and what I wrote in my dissertation work plan for the review submitted at the end of March. This difference is enormous. Was it a sudden and exponential change or was it that it was ‘under construction’ all these months and simply flowered into being under the time pressure of the deliverable?

There seems to be more to it than just this – a change in perception and mindset; there’s also a recognition that the focal length of my mind’s eye I was striving to adjust one year ago has indeed come home. Pulled in from the wider world on the horizon that it was accustomed to be focused on, I find my worldview oriented from my own domestic sphere, looking outward. A goal I’d aspired to reach. Last year, I said:

“…the time had come for me to change the focal length of my mind’s eye … from the far ahead and into the future to the domestic and in the present moment, the now and the immediate, the local and the life’s daily contents.[…] I sense I have arrived at the endpoint of a journey … That this orientation on far horizons of time, rather than space, has come to serve its purpose, and that a new orientation was now required for this later stage of my life.”

Last night, when talking to my friend Samim, I recognized my focal length had fundamentally changed. And, the change in its calibration has been a beneficial one. More stability, more peace. Roots have grown and captured the earth, not simply an anchor holding a hot air balloon. Grounding in the truest sense of the word. I can now only hope that this novel orientation and path bears the promised fruits.

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Unlearning and Learning

Today it struck me that one of the challenges in my learning journey will be to shift my perspective – a long established habit of thought and practice – from writing reports for clients at the “working knowledge of the topic” level to formulating interesting and original research questions (RQs) for journal publication. As the diagram above shows, these are two very different animals.

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Linking Recognition to Resilience: Cognitive Justice and the Informal Economy

Soon enough, at some point this year, I’ll have to take a decision about whether to situate my vegetable vendors and informal traders as ‘livelihood’ actors, ekeing out a living by the side of the road, or continue bypassing the literature of poverty as I strive to reinforce their status and role as professional traders and intrepid actors who keep fresh vegetables flowing into the informal settlements of Nairobi for low socio-economic food security needs. Recognition matters you see. And the IPCC (2022) has gone as far as to describe recognition as one of the three pillars of climate justice.

Source: IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers

Falling back on the plethora of extant literature would be the easiest thing in the world. By undermining all the hard work and effort I’ve seen among the informal sector over the years as mere livelihoods would open doors easily to discussions of livelihood resilience (see Speranza, Wiesmann, & Rist, 2014) in the context of the massive global socio-environmental changes occurring with increasing frequency and unpredictability. I make note here that I’ve only seen the word ‘livelihoods’ when referring to people’s employment or revenue generating activities in the context of the global South. It has become laden with implications of low-skilled, low-productivity work, and imbued with all the degradation of poverty, vulnerability, and marginalization. In Finland, livelihoods is used in general parlance for all occupations, but that is an exception that proves the rule.

What do “low skill, low productivity” even mean in an essential sector such as facilitating flows of perishable fresh vegetables in a timely manner, against all odds during a pandemic and its socio-environmental impacts? This, in my opinion, is the outcome of cognitive injustice. Throughout the disruptions and delays caused by pandemic management restrictions, curfews, lockdowns, and blockades, fresh vegetables kept reaching the lowest socioeconomic segments of Nairobi’s population (NIPFN, 2021). This could not possibly have happened without highly skilled and experienced traders, such as those who operate in Nairobi’s wholesale produce markets, leveraging their extensive networks and connections to ensure the last mile of the farm to fork value chain is kept functioning. Our data with 4 groups of 5 wholesalers each, operating in the value chain for tomatoes, bananas, green leafy vegetables, and onions, shows the increased risk burden borne by these linchpins who connect rural producers to urban customers.

However, I may have found a way out of my dilemma, underscoring my own well-documented call for recognizing these essential occupations as more than mere livelihoods. Cognitive injustice is closely related to the principle of recognition, as cognitive justice implies the recognition of skills and capacities that may not fall into conventional categories of higher education or vocational training et al. And, so I’ve begun exploring the literature of cognitive justice, and its implications for mama mbogas – women who vend vegetables like the lady in the photograph above.

The best example of the definition and application of the concept of cognitive justice that I’ve found is from Brendan Coolsaet (2016) who extends an idea that emerged as decolonial thought to the context of European peasant farmers in France. Such a reversal of the flow of concepts, imo, increases the robustness of the concept, therefore I will introduce his conceptualization in snippets below:

The… struggle for recognition, hence, is one for cognitive justice. Cognitive justice is a notion originating in decolonial thought. It encompasses not only the right of different practices to co-exist, but entails an active engagement across their knowledge-systems (Visvanathan, 2005; Santos, 2007). [Coolsaet, 2016]

And, his paper provides an inspiration pathway towards developing my own theoretical contributions, viz.,

The paper begins by introducing the reader to the concepts of (justice as) recognition and cognitive justice, drawing on critical theory and decolonial thought. It then considers the relevance of these concepts for the European context, showing how European peasants are culturally and cognitively misrecognized. [Coolsaet, 2016]

My reasons have to do with my data analysis of the extensive qualitative datasets from the remote resilience project completed for my dissertation work in 2020-2021. There is a persistence of personal impact of recognition that comes through the multi-temporal sampling of the longitudinal study. In the context of this blog, I’ll simply share a screencap of a video interview with a participating vegetable vendor from one of Nairobi’s slums who, when asked to reflect on the impact of her experience of the social design intervention, after more than a year, sat back and said this (translated captioning and video interview by Tazama Africa team of innovation facilitators).

Not only is the principle of recognition a part of the concept of justice (IPCC, 2022) but one can see the relationship between such recognition (and thus respect) and socio-economic resilience as an outcome of the resulting motivation for growth and business development. Seen below is a quote translated by a facilitator and documented during the closing session of the intervention.

These two statements are from different participants from different localities in Nairobi and were each said more than a year apart. Recognition itself seems to be a resilient principle, and its impact is long lasting, with implications for facilitating sustainable social change. This is all I’ll say for now, as writing any further words requires more thoughtful review and analysis.


Coolsaet, B. (2016). Towards an agroecology of knowledges: Recognition, cognitive justice and farmers’ autonomy in France. Journal of Rural Studies, 47, 165-171.

Speranza, C. I., Wiesmann, U., & Rist, S. (2014). An indicator framework for assessing livelihood resilience in the context of social–ecological dynamics. Global Environmental Change, 28, 109-119.

IPCC, 2022: Summary for Policymakers [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Tignor, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . Cambridge University Press.

NIPFN Kenya, November 2021, National Information Platform for Food Security and Nutrition, Food Security Situation during COVID-19 Pandemic, Source

de Sousa Santos, B., Nunes, J. A., & Meneses, M. P. (2007). Opening up the canon of knowledge and recognition of difference. In de Sousa Santos, B.(Ed) Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies.

Visvanathan, S., 2005. Knowledge, justice and democracy. In: Leach, M., Scoones, I.,Wynne, B. (Eds.), Science and Citizens: Globalization and the Challenge of Engagement. Zed Books, London; New York (p. viii, 295 p.)

Webb, J. W., Tihanyi, L., Ireland, R. D., & Sirmon, D. G. (2009). You say illegal, I say legitimate: Entrepreneurship in the informal economy. Academy of management review, 34(3), 492-510.

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