Designed to matter: Social design of the participatory approach to enhance innovation capacity

Chew et al. 2015 introduce their blending of the psychological concept of ‘mattering’ with the theoretical aspects of agency and empowerment, in their paper looking at ICT4D and women micro-entrepreneurs in India.

Mattering is an empirically verified and validated concept from the field of social psychology 1. It is defined as the perception that people have of how significant they are to others (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981). As conceptualized in the social psychology literature, mattering has three dimensions (Elliott, Kao, & Grant, 2004) – awareness, importance, and reliance. […] Mattering is the perception that “others depend on us, are interested in us, are concerned with our fate, or experience us as an ego-extension exercises a powerful influence on our actions” (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981, p. 165) (Chew et al. 2015)

Notes by quoted authors:

1 The idea of mattering can also be traced to frameworks emerging from the symbolic interactionism school in sociology. According to this school, people create societies through interactions with other by attaching subjective meaning interpreted mutually (Stryker, 2008). Thus, in the case of mattering, a person might feel important due to his or her perception that others are perceiving him or her to be important. (Chew et al. 2015)

Given my earlier definition of social design in the Nordic tradition, one can thus approach the attributes of mattering as a set of factors with which to guide the project’s design and implementation planning, with a view to effecting a decisive qualitative change in the circumstances of a societally disadvantaged segment or group of participants.

If human-centered design is to truly matter, then its processual experience must leave the participating humans feeling that they mattered.  With this in mind, I designed the Remote Resilience Project in 2020. If the experience left them feeling that their voices were unheard or didn’t matter, then what would empower them to put the designerly principles introduced in the sequential participatory group sessions into practice by attempting to transform or innovate their existing daily practices?

Chew et al. (2015) go on to say:

We see mattering as a psychological asset or resource that might help expand an individual’s agency, i.e. an individual’s capacity to act independently and to make his or her own free choices.

This is as close as we’re going to get to a description of innovation capacity and/or transformative capacity of individuals and groups in the low income, low literacy context of lower income neighbourhoods in African cities.  We are then able to adapt the situated work in South African townships by Ziervogel, Cowen and Ziniades, (2016) ( as illustrated in the figure 2 below) in a transdisciplinary manner by the introduction of design and innovation methodology as mechanisms for experience delivery.

As yet, neither Chew et al (2015) nor Ziervogel and colleagues (2016) have mentioned the relationship between their two concepts as a lens by which to identify the attributes that contribute to a person’s sense of mattering? That many of our participants expressed it clearly and verbally – either immediately after the sessions ended within a month of starting, or one year later on reflection of the experience and its impact on daily life now – implies they did not feel they mattered before they began our sequence of participatory sessions. They call it a training, and according to the lead innovation facilitator, were pleasantly surprised to be given the role of experts in the room in the art and craft of profiting from trade in perishable fresh produce under the hot sun.

Photo Credit: Tazama Africa Media https://tazamaafrica.org/

We showed the ladies how to use the two attributes of Time and Money in rough and ready evaluations of optimizing resources against needs, introducing it as a visual planning tool. Just over half (53%) were still using the tool one year later and some provided some evidence of outstanding results in terms of goal setting and creating financial strategy roadmaps. Around 1/3rd were making it a regular practice to meet and share ideas with at least one other person in their social networks; and around 3 out 4 people had begun taking initiatives to grow revenue including a practice all of them were reluctant to adopt – cold calling customers for sales of vegetables – by adapting to the less intrusive social media push notification approach via WhatsApp groups of existing customers. Digitalization had facilitated a reason to maintain connections with one’s network even if business was slow for all and more risky due to the volatility of uncertain conditions triggered by the pandemic’s measures to contain disease such as lockdowns and curfews. Social media is the ideal informal trade platform and each of the different networks has a different role in the journey from prospective buyer to satisfied customer that we called the ‘merchant customer dance of trust building and relationship’. It took much longer via social media to start from scratch but for those who had long established but real world networks the transition to social was a way to maintain the interconnections during turbulent times.

We have written about the third party role in facilitating agency and empowerment, and pondered whether taking a systems thinking approach can lead to some generic contributions to theory. Now, it makes sense to consider the role played by the explicit recognition of the role of expert in the room as the micro-entrepreneur herself.

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