Contextualizing design of remote interventions for local food systems resilience strategies in literature

By | May 26, 2021

I began my academic explorations on this blog a couple of months ago with a post on the power of sensemaking to transform the context and frame of reference, and thus provide a means for empowering one to make decisions for a decidedly unknown near future, where increased uncertainty and volatility have become the norm.

I came across a very interesting paper by Bednar and Welch (2014) who touch upon this aspect, although approaching it from a different disciplinary lens and focus. I thought to read and reflect upon it anyway, to see what I could learn.

“… it is important for actors to take ownership and control over their own change process (see e.g. Friis, 1995). A system that will be perceived as meaningful to particular people requires their input as co-creators in design, and consequently cannot be designed for them by anyone else, however, expert. Thus, the paper takes a critical systemic perspective: one which seeks to support emancipation of individuals to control their own analyses in a context of dynamic complexity (Klein, 2007; Bednar and Welch, 2008)”. ~ Bednar and Welch (2014)

Yes, this is so. My only challenge, as compared to theirs, was to remotely facilitate this analyses in a context of dynamic complexity, through third parties on the ground. The rest of the task I faced is as they articulate it here. My problem framing, when designing the intervention for actors in the last mile of urban food systems last year, was as follows:

If indeed the informal urban food system’s last mile actors supplying the flow of fresh vegetables into the informal settlements of Nairobi were to grasp the nature of their challenges after the impact of Covid and distinguish internal from external ones, along with some introduced tools to facilitate their sensemaking and planning, they could craft their own roadmaps to enhance their own resilience and recovery as the pandemic played out over time. (Bhan, forthcoming)

Bednar and Welch (2014) take a sociotechnical perspective in this paper, as they argue and illustrate below:

If the business practice itself is the activity, the analysis is undertaken to improve understanding of that domain of practice. Change-related inquiry is about developing two new understandings – of the activity (domain of practitioners) and of the analysis (domain of professional analyst or “change magician”). This could be described as facilitated socio-technical analysis (see Figure 1).

The informal wholesalers (B2B), in particular, were in Problem space 1, per the diagram by Bednar and Welch (2014) above. However, instead of ‘change magicians’ or analysts (problem space 2) I worked with ‘innovation facilitators’ to support participants with their exploration of their tacit knowledge. Because we’d applied the principles of participatory design in the Scandinavian tradition, we considered the business practitioners (the informal wholesalers, and vegetable vendors) as their own change magicians, imbuing them with the agency to navigate their own sensemaking and change making. Our task was simply to introduce tools for sensemaking and to facilitate their process. The only role for expert analysis was in the design of the sensemaking tools based on deep knowledge of the operating environment and commercial practices prevalent in the informal trade system in East Africa.

Bednar and Welch (2014) go on to review (from a cybernetic perspective) the need for a socio-technical toolbox to support development of these understandings, and discuss issues relating to use of such a toolbox in a context of dynamic complexity in the balance of their paper. They state:

Change is a reflection of organizational choice, and the only unique asset an organization owns is the know-how embodied in its members (Prusak and Davenport, 1998; Nonaka, 1991). These issues concern complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty in organizational living and therefore require to be examined through a lens of contextual inquiry. This means that an approach of “change management” would be inadequate to the task and instead what is required is a change magician to facilitate a design process. […] any suggestion that organizational change can be planned and managed according to entirely rational principles must be open to question, as has long been recognized by, e.g. Simon (1947, 1991), Lindblom (1959) and Vickers (1965). All of these writers disqualified the idea of rational choices and described instead much messier heuristic approaches. (Bednar and Welch, 2014)

This describes our context and situation on the ground last year, where due to the pandemic, the complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty increased. The sequential workshops were designed as a form of facilitated contextual inquiry, beginning with a session on “let’s identify all the challenges and impacts we’ve faced since Covid began” through to exploring the role of digitalization and scenarios looking at 3 month, 6 month, and 2 year horizons. The high level aim was to facilitate participants sense of agency to create their own roadmaps of development.

As I read through their conceptual paper, I can see how Bednar and Welch (2014) have done some of the heavy lifting to help me situate the work I completed last year, albeit in a very different context, with perhaps greater uncertainty and complexity, and a measure of volatility and vulnerability.

“…actors need to create for themselves a productive, learning spiral to inform the process of change. This might be achieved by adoption of complex methods of inquiry, making use of a variety of tools. […] These tools lend power to analysis in emancipating individual stakeholders and groups to explore and surface their contextually dependent perspectives. These exercises and interactions can help individuals to explore their own sense-making (Weick, 1995) and surface their tacit understandings of contextual dependencies in work contexts.” (Bednar and Welch, 2014)

These issues of surfacing contextually dependent perspectives and exploring them become even more important in wholly undocumented contexts like the commercial operating environment of informal economy market actors. Here, the ‘change magician’ or expert analyst, to use Bednar and Welch’s term, must become an expert facilitator of sensemaking, building tools to support the actors’ need to create their own learning spiral and process of change, in a manner that fits the constraints of the actors educational and literacy levels.

It is here that I’m rapidly coming to recognize that the tool alone, or the expert toolmaker themselves, might not make the best facilitator, and that intermediaries to bridge the gap between expert knowledge and local context may be required for more efficacious outcomes.

It is important to distinguish between the archetype of a toolset, as conceived by an expert for use generally, and a particular instance of use of that toolset, for which an appropriate system of use is needed for relevance in context, owned and controlled by engaged actors. (Bednar and Welch,2014)

On the other hand, one notes Bednar and Welch’s emphasis (2014) on context of use and the importance and relevance of the context of the operating environment (the specific kitchen, to use their analogy). Whereas, in my body of work, the context itself is predetermined as that of the informal economic system, as prevalent in East Africa. The challenges faced by market entrants or organizations tend to occur when this context is not recognized as relevant or influential enough requiring any kind of mapping or analysis prior to introduction of innovation or interventions, much less expertly designed tools



Bednar, P. M., & Welch, C. E. (2014). Contextual inquiry and socio-technical practice. Kybernetes, 43(9/10), 1310-1318.

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