Infrastructures of inclusion and informality: who drives the design of sociotechnical systems?

A recent Debate (Development and Change, Vol 52, No. 4) on the infrastructures of inclusion, informality and the social contract expands the notion of infrastructure beyond the tangible and the technological, to the systemic and economic, as well as societal structures and processes that are intended to facilitate inclusion. As Kate Meagher says in her introduction to the Debate (Meagher, 2021) the “will to include” has become paramount, and the recent global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic has only made matters of economic inclusion more critical than ever.

The Debate situates the discourse within three overlapping spheres – Inclusion, Informality, and Infrastructure – and the articles “examine the specific processes through which these inclusive connections engage with informal actors, focusing on how they work and for whom” (Meagher, 2021). Reading them carefully has opened my eyes to the dark side of digitalization as the panacea for the developing world’s ills. It also raises the question of how these socio-technical systems (STS) were conceptualized and designed in the first place.

For example, Ruth Castel-Branco’s article explores:

“…the contentious politics at the interface of digital technologies and cash transfer administration in Mozambique. It combines ethnographic research conducted between 2016 and 2018 with semi-structured interviews in 2020 to trace how state technocrats, local leaders, community volunteers and cash transfer recipients have sought to claw back power from digital control.” (Castel-Branco, 2021)

While Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino observe:

“…within a development context, [digital] platforms do not operate in a political or historical void. They depend on other actors to fund, facilitate and frame their activities. Thus, our article situates platforms within a wider discussion of policy paradigms. Other powerful actors, such as large donors, government bodies, or large corporate partners in the case of agriculture, can pressure the platform operator to curate the market in ways that accommodate and reflect their own requirements, interests and theories of development.” (Mann and Iazzolino, 2021)

How well these markets are curated to benefit the poor, is a human centered design question that may never have been raised throughout the product development process. These authors have taken an infrastructural lens to “decipher the distributive and governance implications of the complex institutional, financial and digital linkages” of inclusion “in the circuits of contemporary market economies (Meagher, 2021). That is, they are analysing aspects of the impact of a designed STS from a variety of socio-political and economic development angles that designers and developers are rarely asked to consider in the course of their work.

Scandinavian design approaches that seek to emphasize the empowerment of the end-users of digital technology trace their legacy of political activism to their roots in the worker empowerment efforts in the 1970s. Taking sides on the behalf of the more vulnerable group of stakeholders, giving them a voice in the design process, incorporating their needs for improving their working conditions and building tools to enhance their skills and capacities are all facets of this design tradition’s long legacy of democratizing innovation.

Yet, as these articles collected together in this Debate show, design and designers have little role to play in the actual outcomes and implementation of their work which seeks to include the economically excluded. Karasti (2014) brings up aspects of this issue in her comprehensive review on infrastructing, where she notes that sometimes the emphasis is far too much on the technological side and not enough on the social side. I share an extensive quote here:

This shift, in broadening the focus from mere technology to its embedding context of practice, inevitably (re)calls for paying attention to the deeply socio-technical nature of infrastructuring. In STS tradition, this is premised in the idea of the mutual constitution/shaping (“imbrication,” Star, 2002) of the social and the technological.

This mutuality is contextually embedded, (i.e., technologies are seen as socially situated). It directs researchers to pay attention to the interdependent and inextricably linked relationships between the social and the technical without making a priori judgments about the relative importance of either or forcing separation between them.

In current PD literature, however, the social seems occasionally stripped away from the notion of infrastructuring. We see this both in approaches that aim to develop method support for infrastructuring but confine themselves to technology design, and in the work that employs additional user concepts that—while allowing for more nuanced analyses of the user population—run the risk of reducing the notion of infrastructuring to mere technological aspects. (Karasti, 2014)

Sociotechnical systems (STS) have increasingly been looked to in development to provide the linkages and connectivity for such economic inclusion.  At which stage of the product development process are the questions asked about the way these systems economically include or exclude the informal actors who are more than just the users of such tools and may depend on them for their livelihoods ?

References

Karasti, H. (2014, October). Infrastructuring in participatory design. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers-Volume 1 (pp. 141-150).

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