I have umpteen drafts saved, of posts I began writing since the last published one on 29th February this year, and never finished. 2020 has outdone itself in its impact on all of human society, across our entire planet. I have been active on Twitter, where my literature reviews, in service of the pivot I intended for my doctoral dissertation work plan, in response to the pandemic and its supporting restrictions. But actually writing words, like this, that continue to flow beyond the 280 character limit, has been more difficult than I ever imagined, but probably less difficult than this short half year has been for most of humanity.
The whales, however, are singing.
Since April 2020, I have been working with a team on the ground in Kenya to explore remote knowledge work – can we take a participatory approach to knowledge creation and exchange? Can we co-create a programme of collaborative community resilience building and recovery planning activities that begin by devolving agency to the participants? Can we offer powerful tools for problem discovery and analysis; followed by sensemaking, horizong scanning, scenario planning, and roadmapping, from the design and innovation methodology to the informal food system actors in Nairobi who supply slums with fresh tomatoes and spinach, without a coldchain? What kind of a knowledge transfer step down transformation process would be required to facilitate innovation planning among informal vegetable vendors by young women and men from their communities? How do I make tools for problem discovery and solution development that meet the needs of women who source truckloads of fresh tomatoes from upcountry markets?
It has been an immensely exciting intellectual journey, for myself, and for the team. To remotely transfer skills for innovation facilitation to team, who will then work with groups of women operating along the stages of the last mile of the farm to fork informal urban food ecosystem, and to cocreate the sequential workshops during the prototype with the tomato chain, before scaling it to onions, banana, and green leafy vegetables with the facilitators, has completely overhauled my assessment of my own research direction, capacities, and the tenor of the PhD while retaining the original dissertation topic.
We are currently running brainstorming workshops using design thinking for innovation to facilitate the group’s navigation of their own problem space and to enable sensemaking and horizon scanning for recovery plans that maybe more resilient and sustainable in their operations and structure, than before the global pandemic’s whole systems shock. The sequential design consisting of either 4 or 3 workshops has evolved into two parallel paths, one designed to meet the needs of livelihood players like vegetable vendors, and the other to meet the established traders in the wholesale markets.
In September, we will be able to reflect on the entire experience of delivering 36 workshops with 50 people active in 4 commodity chains viz., tomato, onion, banana, and sukumawiki remotely from Finland to Kenya. The development journey has hints of a roadmap for product (and service) development under conditions of extreme systemic shock, traditionally encapsulated as VUCA: Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity; and Ambiguity.
Note: In the context of informal sector dominant operating environments, where cash flows are unpredictable and incomes irregular, the VUCA context describes the base operating conditions. What has changed for the traders is that the systemic shock of the pandemic has disrupted the VUCA patterns prior to covid, thus impacting their experiential knowledge and related business and operating practices.
For instance, the estimate time and cost of sourcing a truck of tomatoes is now completely unknown given the changes in the number of roadblocks and other obstructions like curfew timings to disrupt the known estimates of time taken and costs during transport from the country to the city.
What was is no longer, and what will be, is not yet. In the meantime, the informal system’s resilience is on display as the supplies of fresh produce from farms to Nairobi’s slums has never wavered.