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

By | April 8, 2021

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.

Going deep into the early development of socio-technical systems (Trist; Mumford)* frameworks as well as the Scandinavian tradition offered me more relevant insights than more contemporary literature due to the novelty of the operating environment which I was considering. That is, because these two subjects – socio-technical systems, and the participatory design approach – have emerged from highly literate and heavily industrialized (often called ‘advanced’) societies, their evolution, for the most part has taken place in that very same context. Contemporary insights diverged significantly from my needs at the outset for attempting to contextualize informal trade ecosystems in East Africa within the advancements in published research.

It was in the older papers such as those by Pelle Ehn (1993) where I found nuggets of value that allowed me to frame the informal trade ecosystem – characterising such micro-systems (Bhan & Gajera, 2018) as the last mile of supply and sales of fresh produce in Nairobi’s slums – in a manner that let me confidently approach the design of a “sequence of participatory activities” (Sautier, Piquet, Duru, & Martin-Clouaire, 2017) for groups to collaborate on innovating their own social and economic development & recovery plans. Ehn’s (1993) statement that the outcome of such participatory design could in fact be the building of the tools that empowered the workers and enhanced their skills, and not just the design and build of the intended STS was one such nugget:

“[The Scandinavian tradition of participatory design] might be called a work-oriented design approach. Democratic participation and skill enhancement [were] themselves considered ends for the design”

Another was the realization that regardless of whether one was conceptualizing a mobile telephony related solution as an outcome, the adoption and utilization of mobile telephony by informal market women and traders as a ubiquitous tool in their daily trade activities meant that they, as workers in their ecosystem, could in fact be reframed as an organically developed socio-technical system in their own right. This, together with the early Scandinavian researchers focus on workers and democratic participation, strengthened the argument for the participatory design lens even though many of the micro-entrepreneurs I was targeting were independent operators working for themselves and not for a larger organization, such as the industrial organizations characterizing the emergence of the early work on both STS and participatory design. In fact the emphasis on democratic participation and skill enhancement mentioned by Ehn (1993) underscored the relevance and approach of the shift I was making towards participatory design methodology in the Scandinavian tradition, given the needs for devolving agency and self empowerment inherent in my project’s design criteria.

So, while contemporary directions in research in these two thematic areas might not always be wholly applicable – the only Living Lab I have for instance is the informal settlement informally – the original conceptualization of these frameworks, approaches, theories, methods and tools were eminently applicable to my own application area. One that I believe can be transformed by this reframing away from long established global North traditions of marginalized, vulnerable, livelihood actors eking out a living by the side of the road. One does not build design thinking tools or innovation workshops for the latter; but one definitely has a long history to build on from the practice and research in doing the same for workers looking to boost their skills and knowledge in order to transform their operating environment, particularly in response to tremendous change – such as that facing factory workers in the early era of computerisation. It goes without saying that this reframing has enormous implications for development.


Dell’Era, C., and Landoni, P. (2014). Living Lab: A Methodology between User-Centred Design and Participatory Design. Creativity and Innovation Management, Vol.23,No.2, Pp.137-154

Ehn, P. (1993). Scandinavian design: On participation and skill. Participatory design: Principles and practices, 41, 77

Sautier, M., Piquet, M., Duru, M., & Martin-Clouaire, R. (2017). Exploring adaptations to climate change with stakeholders: A participatory method to design grassland-based farming systems. Journal of environmental management, 193, 541-550

Bhan, N., & Gajera, R. (2018). Identifying the User in an Informal Trade Ecosystem. In Proceedings of Design Research Society Conference DRS 2018: Catalyst. Limerick, June 2018

* I have not referenced Enid Mumford’s works here but they were seminal in my deeper understanding of the STS from the human factors angle, and I will reserve a blogpost purely for pondering that whole sphere of knowledge, speaking at it does deeply to my first degree in Industrial & Production Engineering completed in India in the 1980s and my lifelong exposure to labour intensive manufacturing industries and owner management of same.

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