A Synthesis of Sensemaking, from a social design perspective

By | March 6, 2022

Vanderlinden and colleagues, (Vanderlinden et al., 2020) –  a globally distributed team of climate scientists – link sensemaking’s capacity to clarify ambiguities for communities facing socio-environmental changes to fostering their agency for adaptation, and consider this transdisciplinary and knowledge-based activity to be a place-based and community-centric exercise.

In light of this, and before I proceed any further, I would like to reflect on all my own thinking and writing on the topic of sensemaking over the past two years. Much of it has been in the context of the Remote Resilience project, implemented in Kenya after the first wave of the pandemic in mid 2020, where collaborative sensemaking of the socio-environmental changes was the first of the 3 sequential workshops that comprised the intervention with vendors and wholesalers of fresh vegetables in Nairobi’s urban food system.

Facilitation of collaborative sensemaking for a group of tomato wholesalers of socio-environmental changes due to the pandemic – July 2020, Photo: Tazama Media

On why I deliberately selected the first principles of the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design research approaches as design drivers for a conceptual framework:

I am clearly embracing its first principles by choosing to side with her rights to recognition and agency, in my role of designer and researcher. It is from this position that I will now explore further the role of agency of the participant in the process…
Only when we are able to recognize the ambition and agency of the ‘marginalized and vulnerable’ as agents of their own development, can we proceed to developing effective tools that leverage all the cognitive power of design and innovation methodology – for sensemaking, for problem framing, for horizon scanning, for scenario planning, and for visualizing and grasping the nature of the chaotic challenges that permeate their operating environment that clearly address their own needs in their own context rather than that filtered through the lens of the Global North’s long established frameworks and taxonomy.

Sensemaking tool design constraints and going back to first principles– reviewing this with fresh eyes reveals that shifting our perspective in how we think of the end user was a crucial design driver for both tool design and the design research necessary to inform its development.

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.

Sensemaking was already a key element of my professional practice: When faced with complex and systemic challenges, the first task is to make sense of it in easily visualized; understood; and communicable fashion that can inspire insights and catalyze collaboration. Now, a more theoretical look was required, starting from Weick, and extending to abductive thinking and design synthesis for a more visual approach to toolmaking required for a low literacy audience.

“The seemingly transient nature of sensemaking belies its central role in the determination of human behavior. Sense-making is central because it is the primary site where meanings materialize that inform and constrain identity and action (Mills 2003, p. 35). When we say that meanings materialize, we mean that sensemaking is, importantly, an issue of language, talk, and communication. Situations, organizations, and environments are talked into existence.” Weick et al (2005)

While I extended my early literature review to Brenda Dervin’s work, in order to situate sensemaking in the fuzzy front end (FFE) of innovation, today I would incorporate Tushman’s (1977) early work on the special role of boundary spanners in the innovation process as key to facilitating a transdisciplinary approach to collaborative sensemaking. This will probably be my next blogpost.

“… sensemaking, as with innovation, is characterized by iteration in response to a vast world of which we have no more than fragmentary sense (Dervin, 2008; 1992). This sense, far from being static and definitive, undergoes constant construction and deconstruction (Dervin, 1992), because it [sensemaking] depends on 1) those who produce (the sensemakers); and 2) the situations, bound to a space and a time, in which they produce (Foreman-Wernet, 2003).” ~ Morente & Ferràs (2018)

Finally, in line with my opening sentence referring to the impacts and shocks due to climate change, and now including global pandemics, I reviewed literature on sensemaking in extreme conditions, from the social design (in the Nordic tradition) perspective, i.e. not engineered systems.

For now, I have considered the systemic shock of the global pandemic as an increase in volatility, complexity, and uncertainty of operating conditions, from the perspective of the informal urban food system in Nairobi, Kenya. Therefore I have deliberately excluded literature that considers resilience of engineering systems exclusively or that which requires complex technology for sensemaking (eg. Lundberg, Törnqvist, & Nadjm–Tehrani, 2012; van der Merwe, Biggs, & Preiser, 2020).

I looked for a relationship between sensemaking and resilience, which in line with the recently released IPCC 2022 report, can now be broadly related to the capacity to transform – interpreted from the product development perspective as innovation capacity. A synthesis of sensemaking may feel recursive but I suspect Weick would agree its empowering and necessary.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *