Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

TEDTalk video: Recognizing the value creation and economic contribution of the informal economy

My talk given at the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, this August, went live on Ted.com at some point during the night a couple of days ago. At that very moment, I was on a Finnair flight from SIN to HEL, so with a wee bit of delay, here’s the link to the video of the talk. Also available is a recommended reading list I curated, along with footnotes.

I just want to add that its high time we considered the informal sector as a commercial operating environment in its own right. This change of perspective will transform the way we think about poverty, it’s alleviation, and, importantly, open the doors to innovating products and services that can help boost productivity and revenues for micro, small, and medium sized businesses across the developing world, but particularly in Africa and India.

By doing so, we can recognize the economic contribution and value creation by women who make up the majority of such entrepreneurs, and put dollar values to their investment capacity and growth opportunities. As long as they’re lumped together under the umbrella term “informal sector”, with its unquestioned assumptions of low skill and low productivity, they’ll remain invisible, and solutions meant to support their development will never reach them.

Savings Groups : Observations on Economic Cooperation and Collaboration in Rural and Informal Conditions

Recently, I was interviewed on communal rural economic behaviour, particularly socially cooperative ones  such as informal savings and lending groups. The questions posed were:

  • How has your opinion of savings group changed over time?
  • Why in your opinion, are people in Africa and Latin America countries (developing countries) predisposed to forming savings groups?
  • What is the importance of appreciating the indigenous financial services of the people of Africa (or anywhere else)?

I enjoyed the conversation reflecting on the lessons learnt over the past decade of primary research on household financial management within context of informal rural economies across continents and countries so much so that I decided to capture my reflections here as an integrated answer to both questions.

On the documentary level, nothing much has changed in the years since I first observed instances of cooperative economic behaviour in rural informal operating environments. Here’s a snippet from the Prepaid Economy Project’s report written in November 2009:

These complex webs of the rural community’s social networks of trust were obvious in the patterns of sharing and cooperation seen in every country. Groups would invest and save together, for example, the extremely sophisticated cooperative ladies lending circle which had expanded over time to include the services of a local bank in India; or the beekeepers cooperative in Malawi where half the annual profits were saved in a common account while the other half was equally shared.

Years later, we’re still documenting the complex webs of social networking and trust in informal economic ecosystems, and the wide variety of organizational structures for financial and economic management.

Its our recognition of the role of such groups, and their contribution to the resilience and the ability of informal economic actors to manage in volatile and uncertain conditions that has evolved, and changed. The layers of knowledge laid down over the years, across the geographies and cultures, now allow me to take a step back from the details of any particular context, and understand the patterns of cooperation, broadly, across continents and cultures.

Furthermore, our own increasing depth and breadth of understanding the highly interdependent networks of commerce and trade within the informal economic ecosystem – from farm gate to cross border trade – have led to us rethinking the concept of the end user, and questioning the assumptions implicit in the way user research is designed for fintech, financial inclusion, and other such related areas.

That is to say, the way my opinion changed regarding savings (etc) groups, over the years, has been to recognize their importance as the basic building block of the rural and/or informal economy in the developing country operating environment, rather than simply observing their behaviour as a means for individual household financial management, as we’d done in the very beginning.

Source Alice’s entire value web can be thought of as an informal economic microsystem

From the human centered design perspective (HCD, or UCD = user centered design), which is the basis for our work here at emerging futures lab, we have begun to consider that the “end user” of our design solutions might as often turn out to be the group, instead of the individual member of that group. This has been the biggest change in my opinion, over time, in answer to the first question

For the remaining two questions, I rapidly sketched this continuum of different types of “informal” groups engaged in financial behaviour as seen in cash intensive, rural, and informal conditions, seen below.

As we have recognized, regardless of continent or community, the group is a basic economic building block. What changes from group to group, depending on its function and its need in the community, is the sophistication of the organizational and money management structure.

On one hand is the simplest form of cooperation – people pool money that one member then receives as a lumpsum to use, only the mechanism of choosing whose turn it is may require some coordination. At the other end are sophisticated economic management structures often with formal registration and recognition.  This includes integration of formal financial institutions and their products – such as leveraging capital in the form of a fixed deposit in a bank for drawing loans, or their services, such as a designated officer from the bank attending chama meetings.

The fact that both simple and sophisticated groups exist within the rural and informal economy imply that the factors that predispose people to turn to cooperative and collaborative solutions for managing their finances in conditions of uncertainty and unpredictability are thus related to factors external to the local culture or society, and have more to do with the similarity of the conditions inherent in the operating environment of the informal and rural economies of the developing world. These include irregular cash flows from a variety of sources, multiple income streams over the course of the natural year, seasonality inherent in agricultural crop cycles, and lack of a social safety net.

Here’s another snippet from the original report of 2009:

Insights derived from the fieldwork lead us to believe that the key factor that makes the ‘prepaid’ transaction model so successful among the BoP is the fact that the decision making is in the hands of the individual. This model gives the end user significant control over time – frequency and periodicity and money – varying amounts, in the hands of the customer and thus fits in with their need to manage their varying cash flow from multiple income sources with a great degree of flexibility.

Furthermore, among rural communities, it was observed that social capital – that is, the community ties and extended networks – plays a significant role in the success of existing informal yet traditional means of borrowing, lending and sharing wealth and expenses.

That is, the negotiability, flexibility, and reciprocity, that trust enables within one’s social ties, is reflected in the prepaid business model that enabled mobile phones to spread rapidly around the world. And it’s this factor that provides the evidence for our assertion that an external business model or payment plan to be introduced into such an informal economic ecosystem succeeds when it resonates with existing forms and structures of financial and economic behaviour.

This is not only why its critical to first observe, document, and understand the existing solutions and behaviours in what may seem to be a financially excluded population, but it provides the keys to the design of sustainable solutions that are successfully adopted and utilized. The bottomline is that the “informal” or the rural isn’t adhoc or chaotic as initial observations might imply, but there are rhythms and structures inherent in the system that may, in fact, be invisible.

Is Your Product Ready for Africa? Why Kigali’s “Smart” Project Faces an Unforeseen Challenge

However, KTRN boss agreed that they share responsibility since they never conducted a profound market research to determine whether the gadgets are compatible with African weather.

“We sincerely didn’t realize that the weather would affect the gadgets”~ Public Buses Wi-fi: Harsh Weather, Incompatible Gadgets Interrupt Kigali’s ‘Smart’ Project, KT Press, 16th October 2017

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across a Korean device manufacturer completely unprepared for the exigencies of the African operating environment. Do we simply hear less about the robustness of Chinese electronic devices, for instance, or do we hold them to a lower standard? That’s a conversation for another day as its an entire screed in itself.

Here, I’ll just introduce our simple framework for ensuring you’ve covered all the bases when developing a new product for a market with very different conditions from your existing ones. Perhaps, it may provide food for thought for both the procurement side of the equation, when thinking about technical specifications and requirements, as well as the potential supplier side, when thinking about entering the African market.

Place: Feasibility

…inadequate infrastructure is a fact of life. Whether is variability in electricity supply in the urban context or lack of it in the rural. Things we take for granted in the operating environment in which these lenses were first framed – pipes full of running water, stable and reliable power, affordable, clean fuel for cooking, credit cards and bank accounts – are either scarce, inadequate or unreliable for the most part.

Feasibility, thus, takes on an entirely different meaning in this context. Each location or region (place) may have different facilities.

This rather obvious oversight has tripped up much larger manufacturers than this. Consider Whirlpool.

Emerging new markets, such as Rwanda’s, are rapidly adopting the latest technology. Is your product up for the challenge?

Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity

There are two key elements which underpin the dynamics of any business or commercial enterprise in the informal sector. These are Time and Money.

A generalized framework can be diagrammed, as shown above, where the dotted line denotes the degree of uncertainty and volatility of an individual’s cash flow patterns – whether from a variety of informal economic activities – such as for the farmer or trader; or from the salary received for a white collar job. The X axis – Time – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Arrival date of a cash payment (from some revenue source), and the Y axis – Amount – denotes the increasing accuracy of estimating the Amount that will arrive. Their relative ability to estimate Arrival and Amount with any degree of accuracy is indicative of their ability to forecast and plan for expenditure.

Thus, at one end of the continuum, one can position an odd jobs labourer who may or may not get paid work on any given day, and is unable to predict with any degree of certainty what type of job he’ll get selected for, nor for how many days it will last. It could be as basic as loading a truck for half a day’s pay, which in turn might even be in kind, and not cash. And, at the other end of this continuum, one can position a the typical white collar salaried professional or civil servant who knows with certainty exactly on which day they will receive the salary and exactly how much will arrive.

 

Positioning and Location

Now, we can frame these two elements of the commercial operating environment in the form of a position map, as shown above, that maps the ability to plan expenditures against the stability of the cash flow. The red arrow is the continuum of certainty and stability of Timing and Amount of an income stream, anchored by the most vulnerable odd jobs labourer at one end and the relatively most secure salaried professional at the other.

Where it gets interesting is the relatively liminal space in the middle where the various economic actors in the informal economy constantly shift position as they seek to mitigate the volatility of their income streams, through a variety of mechanisms. Much of their decision making is related to their own perception of uncertainty and ability to forecast.

For the purpose of this explanatory diagram, I have selected 4 typical examples drawn from different sectors of the informal economy common in the developing country context. Each are at the more vulnerable end of their own segments i.e. a subsistence farmer, rather than one with an established cash crop; or a small roadside kiosk rather than an established general merchandise store in a market town; since they have not yet achieved the goal of their business development strategies to move their own entrepreneural ventures towards relative stability, and thus provide more insight on the relationship between cash flow patterns and investment and expenditure planning.

The hawker of goods at a traffic light or junction is in a comparatively more fragile situation than the kiosk owner with a fixed location who works to develop relationships with passing customers in order to convert them to regulars at her store. Unlike the kiosk, which might be located near a busy bus stop, or outside a densely populated gated community; the hawker cannot predict which cars will pause at the red light as he darts through traffic shouting his wares. However, compared to the odd jobs labourer, the hawker has comparatively more control over his income generation since his is not a passive function of waiting to be picked from the labour pool in a truckyard or construction site.

The smallholder farmer might actually be better off economically in many ways than his urban brethren involved in informal retail, being able to live off the land more cheaply than in the city. Experienced farmers, for the most part, are able to predict with reasonable accuracy, more or less the quantity of their crop, and the estimated timing of the harvest. However, his sense of uncertainty is often perceptually greater due to the unmitigatable impact of adverse weather conditions, or the sudden infestation of a pest or blight, any of which could at any time completely destroy his harvest, and thus, his expectations. This sense of insecurity in turn influences his decisions on expense commitments to far ahead in time, or too large a lumpsum at some point outside of his regional harvest season. The farmer’s income streams are relatively more out of his control than the disposable income in the pockets of the kiosk’s customer base.

The market woman with her display of fresh produce, at the entry level of inventory investment capacity, might only have one or two different varieties of vegetables or fruit to sell, and may not yet have established a permanent structure – a table, a kiosk – in the market. She might start off with only a tarpaulin on the ground with some tomatoes and onions for sale. Unlike the traffic intersection hawker, however, she is more likely to begin by assuming a regular placement and location as this establishes the foundation for her future business development, through the factors of discoverability and predictability among the customers in that locale.

That is, in addition to Timing and Amount of Income – the cash flow patterns and sources – we begin to see the role played by location – Place1, as a supporting element of the commercial activity in the informal economy. While farmers are least likely to have much control over the location of the land they may inherit, their risk mitigation strategies to minimize volatility of their income streams and maximize their ability to plan for the future and manage emergencies will be discussed in depth in the section2 on rural household financial management. These practices are the foundation of business development strategies commonly observed in the informal economy in developing countries which tend to be less urbanized, and as is often the case, more dependent on agriculture as a component of national GDP.

 

Appendix
1 People, Pesa, Place: A Multidisciplinary Lens on Innovating in Emerging Markets
2 Rural Household Financial Behaviour on Irregular Income Streams at the Base of the Pyramid

Work in Progress: An Introduction to the Informal Economy’s Commercial Environment


This topic is being shared in the form of a collection of essays on the following themes, each becoming hyperlinked on completion. Do bookmark this page for regular updates.


Introduction to Background and Context, some caveats apply
Fundamental Elements of Informal Sector Commercial Activity
Rural household financial management as a foundation
Linkages and Networks span Urban and Rural Markets
Underlying Principles for Financial and Social Contracts in the Informal Economy
Informal Sector Business Development Strategies and Objectives
Why A Blanket Approach to Formalization is not a Panacea
Disaggregating and Segmenting the Informal Sectors
The Journey to Formalization Cannot be Leapfrogged

 


Appendix:
Creating Economic Value by Design (John Heskett, IJD 2009)
Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy (IDRC, 2009)
More or Less: The Fundamental Principle of Flexibility” Slides (Informal Economy Symposium, 2012)
A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa (TMEA, 2016)

Financial Behaviour Patterns Observed Among Households in Rural Informal Economy in Asia

This is the original working paper of the research conducted on rural household financial management, in developing country conditions, pioneering the use of methods from human centered design for discovery, during Nov 2008 to March 2009, aka the Prepaid Economy Project. It was peer reviewed by Brett Hudson Matthews, and I have incorporated his comments into the PDF.

This research study was carried out with the aid of a grant from the iBoP Asia Project (http://www.ibop-asia.net), a partnership between the Ateneo School of Government and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (www.idrc.ca)

The abstract:


The challenge faced by Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) ventures has been the lack of knowledge about their intended target audience from the point of view of business development whereas decades of consumer research and insights are available for conventional markets. What little is known about the BoP’s consumer behaviour, purchasing patterns and decision making tends to assume that there are no primary differences between mainstream consumers and the BoP except for the amount of their income – pegged most often between $2 to $5 a day.

In practice, the great majority at the BoP manage on incomes earned from a variety of sources rather than a predictable salary from a regular job and have little or no access to conventional financial tools such as credit cards, bank accounts, loans, mortgages. This is one of the biggest differentiators in the challenge of value creation faced by BoP ventures, particularly among rural populations (over 60% of the global BoP population lives in rural areas).

Exploratory research was conducted in the field among rural Indian and rural Filipino populations in order to understand how those on irregular incomes managed their household expenses. Empirical data collected by observations, interviews and extended immersion led us to identify patterns of behaviour among the rural BoP in their management of income and expenditure, ‘cash flow’ and ‘working capital’ and the significance of social capital and community networks as financial tools. Practices documented include ‘conversion to goods’, ‘stored wealth’, ‘cashless transactions’, and reliance on multiple sources of income that mature over different times.

This paper will share our observations from the field; identify some challenges these behaviours create for business and also explore some opportunities for value creation by seeking to articulate the elements that BoP ventures must address if they are to do business profitably with the rural ‘poor’ based on their own existing patterns of financial habits and norms.


The Conclusion:

In sum, it can be concluded that the challenges for value creation can be quite different for BoP ventures interested in addressing the rural markets. From the observations made in the field, we can highlight three key implications for business development. These are:

  • Seasonality – with the exception of the salaried, everyone else in the sample pool was able to identify times of abundance and scarcity over the course of natural year in their earnings. Identification of a particular region or market’s local pattern of seasonality would benefit the design of payment schedules, timing of entry or new product and service launch, for example.
  • Relative lack of liquidity – The majority of the rural households observed tended to ‘store wealth’ in the form of goods, livestock or natural resources, relying on a variety of cashless transactions within the community for a number of needs. Conventional business development strategies need to be reformulated to take this into account as these patterns of behaviour may reflect the household’s purchasing power or income level inaccurately.
  • Increasing the customer’s span of control over the timing, frequency and amount of cash required – Since the availability and amount of cash cannot be predicted on calendar time, this implication is best reflected by the success of the prepaid mobile phone subscriptions in these same markets. When some cash is available, it can be used to purchase airtime minutes for text or voice calls, when there is no money, the phone can still receive incoming calls. Models which impose an external schedule of periodicity, frequency and amount of cash required may not always be successful in matching the volatile cash flow particular to each household’s sources of income.

A Comprehensive Analysis of the Literature on Informal Cross Border Trade in East Africa

Download the comprehensive literature review (PDF) on informal cross border trade, in the context of the informal economy of the East African Community, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. This paper was supported by TradeMark East Africa during the period November 2015 to January 2016. A short extract from the preamble is given below:


For trade to be truly inclusive and sustainable, it must embrace the informal economy rather than excluding it. When John Keith Hart first coined the termi in the early 1970s, he did not distinguish between the illicit and licit aspects of the informal trade he observed all around him on the streets of Accra. In the decades since, this conflation has created more challenges than necessary, throwing up barriers where there were none.

As Kanbur and Keen suggestii, unpacking the basic concept of the “informal sector” and describing the various segments will lead to far greater returns on the resources invested and improve the outcomes and impact of the policies and programmes designed for each.

“Informal trade” across Eastern Africa can best be described as a web of interlinked networksiii serving to connect peoples and products across the region. Held together byiv trust, kinship and community relationships, it has been seen to be resilient, and persistent. Robust enough to survive natural disasters and manmade upheavals of the decades past, it is flexible, nimble, and responsive to patterns of abundance and scarcityv.

i Hart, K (1973), “Informal income opportunities and urban employment in Ghana”, The journal of modern African studies 11 (01), 61-89

ii Kanbur, R and M Keen (2015), “Rethinking Informality”, http://www.voxeu.org/article/rethinking-informality

iii Walther, O. (2015), “Social Network Analysis and Informal Trade”, Working paper for the World Bank

iv Hart, K (2000), “Kinship, contract, and trust: The economic organization of migrants in an African city slum”, Trust: Making and breaking cooperative relations, 176-193

v Bhan, N. (2009), “Understanding BoP household financial management through exploratory design research in rural Philippines and India”, iBoP Asia and IDRC

Frame Insights: Going back to first principles in the Innovation Planning Process

After conducting research, we need to bring structure to what has been found and learned. We sort, cluster, and organize the data gathered and begin to find important patterns. We analyze contextual data and view patterns that point to untapped market opportunities or niches. Finding insights and patterns that repeatedly emerge from multiple analyses of data is beneficial. ~ Vijay Kumar, 101 Design Methods

“It’s what happens after the research that’s important” is something I found myself saying three times to three different people in three different contexts over the past couple of days. Anyone can go out and interview users and beneficiaries. What’s important is what happens during the Analysis phase.

To ponder this in detail, I wanted to go back to first principles, and drill down into the post research stage where we are expected to frame our insights.

Vijay’s slide pops out 5 key outcomes from this phase, and these are critical for solution development in the subsequent phase. These 5 outcomes from analysis of the data collected during the research phase are:

  1. Looking for patterns
  2. Exploring systems
  3. Identifying opportunities
  4. Developing guiding principles
  5. Constructing overviews

It is this stage that distinguishes the quality of the outcome. Now, in the case of our work in the informal economy operating environment, we have built up an overview of the landscape over the past several years, primarily through immersion and thick data collection using design ethnography methods.

Starting from the purchasing patterns and buyer behaviour of low income consumers, back in early 2008, all the way through to the development of guiding principles such as flexibility, we have explored and mapped the ecosystem from numerous vantage points.

Today, our synthesis of user research does not happen in isolation from the body of work – intellectual property – that has been developed over time, through experiential and practical knowledge.

This, then, is what underlay my conviction when I spoke about the importance of the quality of interpretation of the data, and the transmutation of these interpretations into implemented insights in the form of new product features, service design elements, or nuances of the payment plan in the business model.

Increasingly, the Frame Insights phase of our work has led to the evolution of our understanding of the commercial landscape in rural and informal markets where incomes tend to be irregular and volatile, and infrastructure is inadequate or missing. It is this that I’ve been attempting to capture under the category of Biashara Economics.

It’s not Africa specific. The patterns hold, give or take ~30% margin for historical/cultural/social differences, across continents. That is because these patterns are the natural response to the common characteristics of seasonality, volatility, uncertainty, and unpredictability. And this is why one can see the success of the prepaid business model around the world.

It strikes me here that this in fact validates the methodology and approach to exploration and discovery in unknown contexts, something I had framed as the starting point for the very first such project almost a decade ago. Over time, I discovered how much the methods, as delineated by Vijay in Chicago, had to be adapted for the context but that is a topic for another time.

India: Dragging the reluctant elephant into a digital, cashless future

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Final processing for India’s digital identity platform Aadhaar, New Delhi on 3 March 2017 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

My recent immersion in Delhi a mere four months after demonetization (or, notebandi as it’s locally known) was a bit of a letdown. Oh sure, there were numerous, visible changes in the 2 years since my last trip – mostly very clear indicators of India’s socio-economic development – but none of the sense of chaos that I was expecting, having relied primarily on third party news sources, that too, in English, in the weeks leading up to my departure.

The headlines would have it that people were dropping like flies on the streets. A grand total of 187* people died visibly due to notebandi, or so I heard. The two most common responses were either sympathy – people should not have had to die for something like this and it was a sad thing to happen; or pragmatism – “people die everyday, who knows why, maybe his time had come and he was standing in line.”

The overall atmosphere was one of energy – there’s less of a sense of lackadaisical chaos that used to characterise the neighbourhood market and it’s sleepy vendors waiting for the evening strollers. There’s a sense of purpose in the hustle, as though there was money to be made. Digital money.

IMG_6950The combination of a digital identity platform and the disruption of demonetization could indeed be said to describe ideal conditions for triggering cashless India. Cards are accepted far more easily than before. “Paytm” – a local payments app – is visible everywhere, from on demand cars (Ola, Uber, Meru, etc), small kiosks, through to shiny upmarket shops. As a taxi driver told me with a smirk, everyone’s using Paytm now, even the beggars.

Rural India is said to have suffered far more, according to the reports I’d read prior to my trip. This might be unevenly distributed according to geography and growing season – a factoryworker returning from his home village in Bihar said he’d attended a wedding with hundreds of people and surely someone would have had a sob story to share.

Instead, he’d heard it was the intermediaries in the farm to fork supply chain who purchase from myriads of small farms in order to aggregate in bulk prior to selling onwards towards the cities who’d been hit harder by the sudden lack of liquidity. They were caught in the middle of the cash based chain of transactions and had to carry the burden of wastage if they weren’t able to move produce fast enough. Anecdotes included them distributing potatoes freely to farmers to use as seed for the next harvest, and tomato prices crashing.

Articles in the news state that the economy was hit harder than people would admit to but none, as yet, have complimented the common man for his endurance under conditions of scarcity and hardship, nor praised the hardworking women who kept their families fed through their social networks of give and take.

All the papers – domestic and foreign – only go on about India’s GDP, the economy, the vast business sectors, and the politics. If at all the average Indian is mentioned it is through the lens of pity – “oh, the poor farmer is suffering” or some such heartrending sob story from the “informal sector” – there’s never any mention of their ingenuity in keeping things going without cash; or the way it was all held together under conditions of adversity and scarcity.

IMG_7319That, perhaps was my biggest takeaway from my open ended conversations with a wide range of people from different socio-economic strata, professions, backgrounds, and age groups.

Their palpable pride in themselves in having come through upheaval relatively unscathed, or having the wherewithal to manage.  All the rest of it, the Aadhaar digital ID, the use of technology for transparency and accountability, the mobile platform and its ubiquity, all of these and more, I believe, will sort themselves out in time.

I’m minded to end this with a quote from Rositta J. Valiyamattam writing, ironically, on the topic of Indian fiction (page xii):

“Their novels testify to the amazing resilience of the masses in a nation wherein the commoner is rendered helpless by an often corrupt mighty polity. What stands out is the assertion of the individual will over uncontrolled powers and unfavourable circumstances. They salute the heroic struggles of ordinary Indians in times of extraordinary transformation.”

 

 

*Word of mouth number, every report has a different total, so whatever. All photographs not captioned were taken in Delhi by Niti Bhan during March 2017.

On Seeing

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Microtrader’s market stall, Karatina market, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2013)

Michael Bierut writes a paean to the power of observation in his introduction to the new print run of George Nelson’s How to See. His concluding words resonated deeply:

The unifying theme behind all of Nelson’s lectures – and, indeed, behind his life’s work – was a simple, and optimistic one: by seeing more clearly, one could make better, more thoughtful, and ultimately more humane choices about our manmade environment, that world “God never made.”

Not only did it make me want to run right out, on a snowy Sunday night, and buy the book – I’ve made a note to myself – but it made me reflect on my own work and it’s underlying philosophy of Understanding and Sensemaking before attempting to design for complexity and diversity.

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How value flows in informal trade networks, Busia, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2016)

When I read Michael’s words describing Nelson’s methods for photography and documentation, I recognized my own. And more importantly, I recognized George Nelson’s contribution to the discipline of industrial design, even down to his undeniable influence on curriculum along with Charles Eames.

My first exposure (yes, you saw what I did here) was in 1989 at the Eames’ inspired National Institute of Design where the introduction to photography as a design tool included developing your own black and white snaps in the darkroom. It changed the way I thought about the function and utility of a camera – from vacation accessory to appendage and tool. Three decades later, my preferred choice is a small point and shoot that comfortably and inconspicuously fits into the palm of my hand.

Niti with her camera, Mamelodi Township, South Africa (Photo: Dave Tait 2008)

I learnt to look for patterns in the photographs, at night, after the end of each day out, when the daily routine of downloading, sorting, filing, and transferring a copy to the external drive took place.

The first two or three days are often just noise, the stimulation of the overburdened senses in the sights and sounds of the bazaars and the landscape and the people. But soon, if you know you’re looking for it, the chaos starts to coalesce into signals that begin to weakly emerge and this then helps refine the focus of the discoveries and the directions for further exploration.

Eastern Cape, South Africa (Photo: Niti Bhan 2008)

And, sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, that series of snaps taken from a speeding car, can turn up a thing of beauty. Or a mundane visit to the wet market provides a composition of harmonious hues and textures.

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Kibera Market, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2011)

I’ve never been able to do it as deliberately and consistently as professional photographers, but it doesn’t stop me from taking my camera out whenever something catches my eye.