Contemplating the conundrum of designing for cognitive justice

By | November 23, 2022

“Cognitive Justice: the right of different knowledges to coexist so long as they sustain the life, livelihoods, and life chances of a people.” Shiv Visvanathan, 2021

Unpacking this theoretical statement and putting it into practice in the form of design of interactive, collaborative, and social processes that comprise various participatory methodologies in design and innovation, as well as the creative arts, has been a challenging struggle these past few months. Looking back, I can say the journey began back in April 2020, when I began contemplating the design of a social intervention that was based on participatory creative sessions to be implemented remotely in Nairobi’s informal wholesale fresh produce markets and the informal settlements at the last mile of the farm to fork value chain. I had to devolve all agency for the implementation of my conceptual design to the local facilitation team, and thus encourage them by example to devolve agency for creative self-expression to the participants themselves.

We took centering the agency and capacity for creativity of the participants very seriously, and made this explicit in the facilitators opening script. They were the experts in the sourcing and supply of perishable fresh vegetables without a cold chain. They carried the burden of risk in the informal social economic ecosystems in East Africa. Perishable produce is confined by geography but the informal wholesale networks out of the regional market hub, Nairobi, are able to keep supplies flowing throughout the year by sourcing at the borderlands of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. Making this happen takes skills and experience, and relies on intangible cultural knowledge of the East African informal trade system and networks. There is no degree in biashara. Yet.

When the women operating at the wholesale node and as street vendors in the low socioeconomic neighbourhoods were told that they were the important linchpins for urban food security, it transformed the way they perceived themselves and their role in society. They discovered they “mattered” to their community. That their hard work and sacrifices to keep fresh vegetables flowing from the farms to the slums, throughout the pandemic’s restrictions on travel and curfews, was necessary and important. The words used in the video interviews demonstrate an increase in motivation and determination – psycho-social facets of resilience in the face of systemic shock or natural disaster. Is it too early to begin exploring the connections between cognitive justice and creativity and agency in the context of sustainability driven resilient transformation roadmaps? Vegetable vendors set goals such as diversification and growth and met them in a year.

None of this would have happened if I had been present as the expert in the room.


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