Theoretical background for contextualizing User Agency in Participatory Processes

Scandinavian participatory design practices are not distinguished by particular methods but rather by political commitments to societal concerns and relationships with participating users and communities. Pelle Ehn writes:`In the interest of emancipation, we deliberately made the choice of siding with workers and their organisations, supporting the development of their resources for a change towards democracy at work…'[1993, p.47]. ~ Judith Gregory (2003)

While the evolutionary trajectory of the Scandinavian tradition and approach has emerged from the formal economy’s work places, and the concerns of labour rather than owner/managers; I do not think it a stretch to extrapolate the fundamental values and underpinning philosophy that distinguishes it from other design traditions to the context and conditions of the operating environment of the informal trade ecosystem, as mapped and studied in east Africa.

The concerns of emancipation and agency are rather more critical than less in these focus areas. Questions may arise on whether the informal market woman or vegetable vendor in Nairobi’s slums experiences the same oppression that labour did from management – the original drivers for Scandinavian researchers in their development of the basics of their design and research practices. After all, is she not the free agent of her own trade?

The easy answer is that a moment’s reflection will show that perhaps her oppression is vastly different but not dissimilar in the nature of its ability to disempower and take away decisionmaking and choice in the course of her efforts to improve not the quality of her working conditions but also the quality of life. And, that her expertise in her own experience has never been recognized, nor her fulltime occupation as a sourcer and supplier of fresh produce.

From the perspective of the Scandinavian tradition (Bodker & Kyng, 2018) I am clearly embracing its first principles by choosing to side with her rights to recognition and agency, in my role of designer and researcher. It is from this position that I will now explore further the role of agency of the participant in the process, and how to contextualize the literature for the vastly different operating environment in which I implemented my own project last year.

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Disrupting the Default: Must it fall under “development” if the geography is Africa?

Where does it say that if the geography of the study or innovation or project is in Africa then it must be ‘development’? Is it Tuesday, that it must be Belgium? Will the ‘tyranny of dominant logic’ continue to hold us in thrall regardless of all the massive changes overtaking our world today; including the way connectivity and internetworking has brought us closer to peoples from far away as they share their lives and hopes and dreams on the small screen?

As I continue my literature review on the themes of participation in shaping one’s own working environment, and the overlooked integration of mobile telephony into the daily lives of the invisible masses, I cannot help but notice that regardless of the theme or topic being discussed, if its Africa it must be lumped under development.

Does the African not want to think in the designerly way? Must her acquisition of AI knowledge through an online course be considered capacity building while Nokia’s Chairman gets the accolades for doing the same? Isn’t he being empowered to make informed decisions on investments and product development directions as much as the young woman from Africa is being ’empowered’ by a ‘free online course’ on ‘artificial intelligence’?

It is to Africa’s scholars and thinkers I turn to in order to understand these issues better. In their day, they’ve referred to it as the colonization of the mind, given the imposition of language, customs, religion, et al upon the colonized African.  In 2021, I refuse to fall into the trap of clustering these questions under the umbrella category of ‘decolonization’; twin sister to ‘development’ – a lot of prose and poetry is written, but few clear processes, methods, or analytical frameworks for identifying barriers and lowering them for real world transformation and innovation.

It should go without saying that this was one of the reasons for choosing my adopted homeland to relocate to from San Fransisco and Singapore more than a decade ago. There’s a rather unique legacy in mindset, worldview, and collective history. Finland has never had colonies and instead is one of the rare Northern/Western European countries to have an Independence Day. If it wasn’t the Russian duchifying the poor Finnish peasant, it was the Swedes encroaching across the waters for centuries.

Instead, I turn to management and organization theory, pointing to the late business school professor, Dr. CK Prahalad’s conceptualization of ‘dominant logic’. Memorably, he has said, that it is the tyranny of dominant logic that socializes us to accept that development only flows one way; or that innovation emerges only from the luxurious work spaces of the air-conditioned global North.

Throwing off the yoke of dominant logic is more than just chasing the people out, as any Indian, Kenyan, or Zimbabwean will inform you. Its more critical to learn to question the default settings of one’s own mental models; education system; and the attendent plethora of implicit and tacit assumptions that accompany like jongleurs and fishwives did a walking army.

My rejection of this default setting of development if its Africa arises from my refusal to accept the criminalization of the informal economy by the way its labeled and categorized – its definitely not skulking in the shadows of African cities and villages even if it might be in the OECD’s tax havens. And my very public rebuttal of the ‘vulnerable, marginalized woman selling by the side of the road’ so favoured by livelihood strategists who’d never dream of using the same labels for their local Deliveroo guy or hot dog stand.

Reframing the problem space unleashes whole new opportunities – something that’s been long established in the literature of innovation and design. This is what I’m suggesting here when it comes to the way we categorize and consider the operating environment and economic ecosystems in their African landscape, be it rural or urban.

My recent review of Weick’s work on the role of words and text in enabling sensemaking for transformation and change only serves to underscore my belief in the intangible power of keywords and taxonomy to restrict or unleash new directions for creativity and innovation.

Until we divest ourselves from this default setting we’ll never break out of the box of cookie cutter approaches to product development and solution design – be it a service or business model or payment plan – that caters to the African’s long ignored contextual needs. Innovation does not come with citations.

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Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design: Simply a tradition or a coherent philosophy of design?

“Scandinavian participatory design approaches emphasise change and development, not only technological change and systems development, but change and development of people, organisations, and practices, occurring in changing socio-historical contexts.” Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74.

Long ago, an essay I wrote on “Why is design important?” went viral via Core77 after I published it on my old blog. My very first words were:

Design is first and foremost a philosophy, based on a system of values, which seeks to solve problems. What are we creating? Why and for whom? Are we correctly framing the problem to be solved? These are the questions to which the answers are then manifested tangibly in the form of a new product, service or business model.

I then went on to write a paean on human centered design, particularly the methods based strategic planning approach particular to Chicago’s Institute of Design, part of the Illinois Institute of Technology where I was once Director of Graduate Admissions. I believe Judith Gregory joined as faculty soon after my departure to the West Coast, and I note that she’s relocated to the same state of warmer climes now. But that’s a digression.

I bring this up because one of the things I did early in my role at ID-IIT was map the top graduate design programs by their philosophy of design. That is, it was my belief that each school had its own flavour of design and without clear communication of these differences, we’d face a common problem of students feeling the school wasn’t a fit for them in the way design was theorized, taught, and practiced.

An example would be Cranbrook’s graduate program focusing on studio based hands on explorations of one’s own creative directions versus the methods focused rigorously analytical MDes program at ID which emphasized design planning, strategy, and systematically applying insights from user research for corporate innovation. Students better off in one sort of program would be either feel stifled or afloat in fantasy land if they found themselves in the other school.

As head of student services, I’d had enough such students crying into their beers about feeling out of place but the program had already eaten half a mortgage worth of student loans. That led me to do the comparative analysis and mapping as part of the programme marketing and recruitment communication strategy. And, the phrase “philosophy of design” seemed best suited to capture the essence of these differences between Stanford and RISD, Cranbrook and Carnegie Mellon, ID-IIT and ArtCenter College of Art and Design.

Clearly, at ID-IIT, we weren’t going in the “explore your creativity” direction here and it was best we brought this up with prospective students in the first instance when they came for their tours and whatnot. I was looking at the Admissions process as a systems design challenge because what the heck, I had access to the best faculty minds to draw upon whilst I wandered around figuring stuff out.

Long story short, the more I read about what is called “the Scandinavian tradition” of participatory design, the more I’m wondering whether its actually a philosophy of design spanning the Nordic countries based on a system of common values centered on democratic participation, worker’s rights, centering of voice and agency of the end-users in the decision making process regarding their systems and tools, and the right of access to such tools that enable making sense of complexity and uncertainty i.e skills enhancement, knowledge creation and redistribution, among other empowering goodness?

How long can you call it a tradition? Why do they call it a tradition? Is it because calling it a philosophy would place the academics in the painful position of umpteen theoretical papers justifying the use of one word, a problem I hadn’t faced as a program administrator or blogger? So I thought I’d throw it out here and if someone comes across it, if they ever do a search outside of Google Scholar’s paywalled gardens, then maybe I’d get an answer in reply.

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Design of Visual Sensemaking Tools for Informal Economy: Literature Review

Since I have long been exposed to the concept of sensemaking from the perspective of the synthesis phase of human centered design research, and design/innovation planning & concept development, I hadn’t thought to review the literature last year when building customized sensemaking tools for market women and vegetable vendors sourcing and supplying fresh vegetables in Nairobi’s slums.

This was already a key element of my professional practice: When faced with complex and systemic challenges, the first task is to make sense of it in easily visualized; understood; and communicable fashion that can inspire insights and catalyze collaboration.

Now, however, the exigencies of my doctoral study required I frame and contextualize elements from decades of professional practice within the bounds of theoretical legacies, and I began looking for literature on sensemaking that made the most sense for my application area. As previously noted, I’d found it useful to go back to early literature or pioneering theorists in the field to ground my attempts to extrapolate knowledge emerging from or traditionally applied in highly industrialized organizational contexts to the informal economic ecosystems that characterize the operating environment for a vast majority in the global South.

The theory of sensemaking in the organization context (i.e. work related practices since I’ve framed the last mile of informal fresh produce supply as a socio-technical system (STS) in context of applying the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design methodology) is considered to have been developed by Karl E. Weick, and papers between 1979 to 2001 are cited to support this assertion in literature that surfaces from a variety of disciplines that take the perspective of sensemaking for studying processes, particularly those related to organizational change, design and innovation, and systems and complexity.

It is, however, Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld’s 2005 paper that captured my attention. The reason for this can be traced in the literature to Kolko’s comparative analysis as visualized below. Read More »

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The power of sensemaking lies in its ability to reframe the challenge and its context

A key characteristic of participatory design is the use of physical artefacts as thinking tools throughout the process. This process is a key characteristic of the various participatory design practices emanating from the Scandinavian research-led tradition (e.g. Greenbaum and Kyng, 1991). As highlighted by Sanders (2006), users in participatory design serve as  “expert[s]of their experiences” on the design team (Sleeswijk Visser et al.,2005), but “they must be given appropriate tools for expressing themselves” ~ Dell’Era, C., and Landoni, P. (2014). Living Lab: A Methodology between User-Centred Design and Participatory Design

Once Sanders’ comparative mapping provided me with direction, I dived deeper into understanding the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design. It seemed to be where I’d find answers to guide the challenge I faced in developing a remotely facilitated innovation driven approach to resilience and recovery among the women active in the last mile of Nairobi’s fresh produce supply. What distinguishes this tradition of design research from the expert driven user centered approach, as highlighted by Dell’Era and Landoni (2014) is the centering of the participants as the experts of their experience. And,that physical artefacts as thinking tools must be provided them for effective outcomes.

Informal Trade Ecosystem mapping study of 2016 provided insights for design of generic sensemaking tool for vegetable wholesaler cooperative. July 2020

I oriented my project design based on these two elements – the emphasis on ensuring the participants were recognized as the experts in the room; and, that we provided a range of tools for them to use – paper, pens, whiteboards and flipcharts, notebooks and pencils – but I also designed sensemaking tools relevant and appropriate for their needs. They were built from scratch to reflect the commercial operating conditions of informal market women and vegetable vendors in Nairobi’s slums since there is virtually nothing available in the literature or practice that meets their contextual needs. Design and innovation tools for sensemaking and problem solving etc tend to be designed for highly educated technologically savvy audiences such as the client companies of design studios, or for users recruited from similar economic operating environments eg. formal economies of the sophisticated consumer markets of developed countries.

Two factors guided my development process – one, I have long framed the informal economy, particularly as prevalent in East Africa, as a commercial operating environment in its own right, deeming it worthy of formal study. And, in the recent past had completed an extensive ecosystem mapping study of informal trade in the East African Community which gave rise to multiple visualizations of the interconnectedness and path dependencies of disaggregated value flows within and without the network of suppliers and vendors maintained by established traders as a business development strategy. This mindset was as important as my shift away from the Expert driven design research approach to needs findings and problem solving. It enabled me to develop customized tools for participants’ sensemaking of the challenges posed by disease containment measures imposed in their jurisdiction one year ago when the pandemic first went global.

These sensemaking tools reflected their own operating environment – the informal economy – characterized by volatile cash flows, irregular income streams, inadequate infrastructure and systems, and a complete lack of social and institutional safety nets. On the other hand, they were also based on the strengths offered by the same environment – collaborative and cooperative socio-economic activities, based on the premise of trust and relationships built and maintained over time that mitigated the lack of regulatory and systemic mechanisms. Extreme flexibility and negotiability offering the potential for adaptive capacity were the upside of the lack of formal structures and contracts imposing calendar schedules.

The second factor was becoming inspired by the literature of the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design. Founded on the need for design of computerised systems in workplaces more than 40 years ago, the tradition heavily emphasized worker needs – worker’s agency in decision making for their work environment, and oriented towards collaborative social practices that still characterize Nordic societies today. Until then, I had not considered the informal economic ecosystem as a socio-technical system (STS) in its own right – simply a commercial one with its own practices and norms.

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Effective Toolmaking: Shifting the Mindset Away from that of “Expert”

The beauty of struggling with words and concepts in order to best articulate them in a manner that reflects one’s lived experience in practice is that one remains true to one’s search for songs of magic regardless of the themes of introspection. This realization has freed me from various self imposed constraints on my use of blogging as a particularly flexible sensemaking tool, one that’s not only easily referenceable through personalized tagging (Dinosaur?) but also categorizable and archiveable for maximum ease of retrieval.

If I must struggle through the worst periods of my doctoral studies – the agonizing process of converting the fieldwork data into well framed peer reviewable articles that meet my supervising professor’s standards of quality – then why not indulge myself here on the blog whilst I do it? And, because I’d flounced off in a snit last week – can one flame war oneself btw? – I felt bereft of a mental playground where I could build and break and try again with the words that are my Lego bricks. So here I am back with a titanium strength excuse to hang around online without derailing my own objectives.

Sanders E-B (2006). Design research in 2006. Design Research Quarterly 1, No. 1, Design Research Society, September 2006

Today is a paean to Elizabeth Sanders’ comparative visual mapping of design research based on a simple 2×2 matrix that distinguishes between the Expert mindset, and the Participatory mindset where the end users of the putative design solution are considered partners in the research that tends to initiate human centered development of the discipline’s outcomes. Simple but powerful visualization that allows us to contrast and compare entire disciplines in design approaches – a sensemaking tool par excellence whose existence makes sense of complexity in its very simplicity. Maeda’s old blog would be proud. This sort of thing rarely happens overnight and usually takes decades of experience before one can craft a tool such as this. Last year’s challenges were met by going back to her original work, and starting from there.

Elsewhere I have laid out in full the background rationale for the need to look for more participatory approaches than those offered by traditional user centered design methodology. Here, I want to ponder the implications, from the practitioner’s perspective, of giving up one’s role as the Expert. Because Sander’s map is a static snapshot of the wide range of disciplinary approaches that fall under the umbrella of design (or Design as we used to tease it back in the day) and doesn’t actually consider the dynamics of leapfrogging from one quadrant of the matrix to another virtually overnight i.e. from one project to the very next.

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The empowering nature of focused introspection

Moved to continue writing the Kalevala series*, I’m back to note that my decision taken a week ago to break up the pattern of daily morning blogging was the right one. The key here is not to fall into unthinking routines that then become discernible patterns but to keep things relatively unpredictable though not disruptive to one’s own work rhythm and goals for writing.

Today, it struck me that such thinking and writing focuses one’s introspection, and, can be an empowering experience. Unarguably, the goal of introspection is to improve one’s understanding, and it can only be said that with understanding comes knowledge. Knowledge has always been associated with empowerment. Ergo cogito sum.


* a search for lost magic of one’s word songs

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Facing the digital demons that eat your mind

After a challenging few days of contemplating the digital lint in my navel, my struggle right now is internal but not personal. My internet public persona has begun waking up after a long silence, thanks to the warming flow of words breaking the ice of silence after a particularly harsh winter. She wants to opinionate on matters digital and virtual, and every idea for a blogpost now coming to the fore feels like a statement to be made or an issue to be analysed. It is this urge that makes me pause – a hard stop, one could say – and ask if this where I want the current to lead me like a raft without an oar?

Cliches would have us human beings as creatures of long established habits, mental ruts that evoke feelings of being in a comfort zone. Yet, ironically, is it not this very aspect of this blog’s persona that I’ve been introspecting on with my written attempts at thinking about the way I thought about things, the framework I crafted for my perspective and worldview, and the deliberate shaping of the narrative thema for the stream of content emerging from the RSS feed?

Have I solved the conflicts of my mind’s eye so well and framed the re-orientation of my internal navigation system that I am now called upon to pontificate or opinionate or otherwise circumlocute, as I used to do prolifically and vociferously when laying the foundations for this blog and website?

Or, has my word song woken up to the barest minimum required to trigger the long somnolent but as equally long habituated urge to connect some dots; analyze an issue; make a point; or otherwise share an opinion in this globally public digital sphere?

If you do not change direction, you might end up where you are heading. ~ Lao Tzu

The latter, imo, is far more dangerous and nuanced a threat to the developmental journey I began two weeks ago inspired by the magic of the Kalevala. If I do not pause to reflect on these ideas sparking now and unthinkingly allow myself to write on the plethora of topics catching my attention, I fear that I might end up almost exactly where I was when I began this journey late last year just before Christmas break.

Taking the decision to stay away from fast moving content streams, such as those categorized as ‘News’ or social feeds, was a considered and deliberate decision to walk out of the current avatar of the global interwebz. There is no hint in any of the content creation directions currently suffocating me, that pursuing them further to flesh them out on this blog will not suck me back into the very maelstorm of rapidly accelerating digital zeitgeist I am seeking to separate myself from in order to recover my own imagination and inner life. I stand at the edge of precipice. It might even be of my own making, or simply the momentum of old patterns.

She tests every word like a fine wine
She holds every thought like her last dime
You can hear a pin drop from miles away
You can hear a heart stop as plain as day
We live in a land where silence is king
Tanya Tucker

Let me take a break from pursuing writing on the blog on a daily basis., and turn my focus wholly and completely towards the research and writing tasks necessary for my doctoral work. Then, if I perceive the need to introspect further if the magic of my words seems to be still missing, even when writing offline or on topics more mundane and methodical such as that required for an academic journal article, I can always return. For now, at least, I must deliberately attempt to shake up pattern formation and habit establishment before I find myself in deep waters that silence me again.

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La petite tristesse de le numérique

There do not seem to be the words in English to capture the sense of loss I was experiencing by the time I’d reached the point where I concluded yesterday’s post. I cannot say finished writing it because I was moved by my own recollection of the emotions I’d experienced that I needed to get up and walk away from the memory. Even last year, I’d had my doubts about the workability of remotely attempting to conduct a design research analysis and synthesis workshop using digital tools.

Today, I’m convinced that this particular aspect of the human centered design process is not digitizable without significant intangible losses in team chemistry. When teams come together to ‘post-it’ on the wall, it as much a physical activity generating creative energy as a cognitive one. Bouncing up and down, rapidly sketching on whiteboards – sometimes literally grabbing the marker out of another’s hand before they’ve even finished speaking due to the excitement of a spark or idea – all of these are as much an intangible and unmeasurable part of the concept development journey as the output itself.

The magic of design lies in the chemistry of the team, or so Steve Portigal and I wrote in our 2005 article “Shopping for Innovation” after interviewing numerous creative directors from both sides of the client/agency table. The raising of barriers to what is already considered an exercise in judgement leading to losses not yet wholly recognized by researchers and practitioners is the issue I want to leave on the table with this post.

The day creative chemistry can be transferred onto Zoom, is the day I’ll believe digitalization can solve all our problems.

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Reflections on Digitalization’s Impact on the Creative Process

My previous post seems to have triggered deeper reflections and responses than expected from a rapidly written rant on the loss of vocabulary. Are the gaps in my memory simply the signs of growing older, which indeed I must have done in the 16 years since I began this blog, or are the recent blank spaces in self generated cognitive tools a sign of a deeper problem with digitalization of everything?

The last 12 months, to be exact, can be said to be a moment of stasis as our communities, societies, and geographies experienced variations of locking down and other restrictions to movement and contact. Well documented is the fact that this accelerated digitalization – initially to the great joy of bureaucrats working to transform the civil services and other key sectors of our society. Today however as we repeat the same contextual experience of this time last year, it is difficult to ignore the complete takeover of daily life by digitalization and its tools.

Heart and soul of creativity – an illustration by Jeroen Meijer, JAM visueldenken, Amsterdam, November 2012

I am contacted by an old time reader – one who claims to have been following my writing on design since December 2004 and thus must be given his due for sheer sisu in having stayed the course through all the ups and downs of the past century ;p (Are there more of you out there? Do write me an email or comment, for old times sake) – who asks me to reflect upon the impact of digital saturation of our daily life and work above and beyond what was already discernible at the start of 2020, today – a year after living with the pandemic’s digital disruption. I paraphrase his request with stylistic flourish to capture the sense of his tone whilst constrained by the need to communicate by digital text alone:

Do not write about design or innovation but pick up the threads of your search for the magic of word song, inspired by the Kalevala, and ask out loud the questions that arise when one reflects upon thinking and writing – as pleasurable activities – in context of the changes wrought by the overnight need to digitalize the vast majority of our daily life.

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