Inherent conflicts discovered in a moment of stillness during a process

My title is a word salad. I can sense and feel and perceive what I mean but cannot yet grasp it. Finding the words to be sung by thinking and writing.

Since March, I’ve been documenting my intention and then process of making significant changes to my inner vision – call it a mental model, a mindset, a world view, a perspective, or a lens whose focal length I must change. The journey has neither been a linear nor continuous one, but the process has never paused nor reversed its direction or changed its goals. Today it struck me that I was in an interesting point in the process that I cannot describe. Let me work with examples.

Imagine changing yourself from the colour blue to the colour yellow and at some point you’re the colour green because its the exact moment the change when the new colour yellow is fully formed but the old colour blue has not yet left. Maybe. Physicists, I’m sure, will have a thousand and one arguments with me on this example. The duration for such a change does not matter as long as one is able to take a snapshot of that moment when aspects of the past state still exist but aspects describing the new state have begun to exist.

That is, one is at an interesting phase of change that can only be described as a moment full of inherent conflict – elements of the old state may contradict with aspects of the new state.

I’ll try a more complex example, the one that caused me to pause and reflect on this inherent conflict. I’ve been making sweeping observations on changes in design on this blog since 2005 with nary a thought or a pause. As y’all know, I’ve been working to develop the academic writing style in my new role as a doctoral scholar. The new style is diametrically opposite the old one, it does not allow sweeping generalizations, and requires a citation for most claims or empirical evidence, unless qualified as conjecture or hypothesis.

After my last post on the blog, I tried to write further on the changes I was perceiving in design practice, from the industry observer’s perspective, which has long been the focal point from which I’ve written, whether for print or websites (eg. Core77, BusinessWeek, NewDesign etc). I found I could not write those sweeping generalizations anymore, given that I’d already completed over 16000 words of journal article writing, particularly in the design genre. The new mode and style was conflicting with the old, since it was cautious and incremental and built on past works, completely unlike a random blogpost blathering on about design.

I cannot go back to the old mode. I do not know for how long. Because I need to be in the new mode to complete my PhD. And, as I discovered in my struggles over the past week or so, the two modes cannot co-exist, they are inherently incompatible and in many ways inherently conflict with each other in their underlying logic and philosophy of approach.

That implies I’m in an interesting moment in transitioning from one state to another. One month ago, on 26th of June 2021, I wrote:

The wrenching shift in my perspective from the outcomes of a project to its process – forced by circumstances of scholarship less than three weeks ago – has kept me preoccupied with reams of paper. I can sense the difference in slowly reading through printed out versions of selected journal articles, annotating their margins and underlining, in the old ways of scholarship, than the perceptually faster scanning that occurs with text on screens. On the upside, I believe I have managed to reorient my thinking towards the processes rather than the content.

Today, I recognize how rapidly I’ve progressed in the process of shifting perspective and reorienting thinking since then. The old mode of perceiving sweeping changes still exists, but the new mode of writing does not allow for it to be captured in words. In a way, one could say that even the old focal length might be blurring since its less clear what it is I’m sensing. If I could see it clearly, I’d be able to write it out. Since I can’t, one assumes I am either unable to see it clearly, or, that the focal length has indeed changed perceptibly enough that I had to sit up and think and write this out today.

o yay, as I used to say.

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Bringing to bear a legacy of perspective on the transformations of contemporary design practice

Thanks to Tricia Wang’s recent article in Fast Company magazine on the unhealthy legacy of a strategy tool from ‘design thinking’, I read her links to Jesse James Garrett’s reflections on the developments in the practice of UX and Maggie Gram’s tracing the history of design thinking and the increasing capacity of design to its roots. That is, three different articles from practitioners that look at the legacy of their industry and its recent evolutions. I am forced to conclude that something has significantly changed in the practice of design in the past decade since I stopped documenting my observations on the transformations occurring in industry and practice.

Wang and Garrett both point to UX Theatre by spydergrrl (2018), a clear sighted observation on the watering down of principles and values that underlie the concept of holistic understanding of context and conditions and criteria for effecting transformative change even as the terms and concepts of User Centered Design (UCD) and UX become more popular. Gram talks about her design students remaining optimistic about their future, thanks to the very same popularization of design, even as we know her article will go on to damn the very source of this popularization.

Synthesizing these three articles, it seems to me that at some point in the past ten years, design’s visions for the future and its values and principles of human-centeredness – centering the dignity and respect that Buchanan talks about in his 2001 reflection in Design Issues – were either degraded significantly by the diffusion of design into every sphere or hijacked and subverted into meaninglessness. Neither of these two outcomes preclude the existence of each other as a reason. When design came to recognized as a powerful toolkit for addressing challenges in complex societal systems is probably also when it came to be recognized as requiring diffusion and degradation of its values and principles before it subverted the status quo preferred by the funders and financiers. It could not be allowed to go too far in disrupting systems.

Second, it seems as though UCD has reached the end of its line as a methodology and approach. Garrett writes:

The more seasoned and experienced a UX person is, the more likely they are to be asking whether realizing user-centered values is even possible under capitalism. These are definitely questions worth asking and conversations worth having as a community.

while Wang observes:

Part of the issue is that as design professionalized over the last decade into UX design within tech companies and beyond, user insights representing the voice of the customer  have not evolved to become a strategic input. Many companies outsource the user insights work to agencies (or what is internally referred to as “vendors”) because they either don’t have the resources to execute research or it’s seen as rote work. Product and engineering often treat UX insights as an activity to check off their list, not as a strategically foundational asset for the product roadmap.

Somewhere, the practice and outcomes of design, in the course of their popularization, became commodified. An Australian visual designer makes this explicit in her observations from the way ‘design’ evolved in South East Asia in the same past decade:

In the past decade, design processes have been dramatically productionised. Design services and what they produced became commodities. In other words, Design is a service and design deliverables are commodities.

Productionized or professionalized, the outcome is commodification of a service whose very function and nature was to differentiate commodities from brands or products – keeping distinctions of design practice from my youth of visual communication or product development – and where every design studio or designer strived to ensure that what they offered was a means to resist commodification of their client’s offerings. In my day, product designers made tangible products, today the label refers to digital products, and such designers have no qualms about calling themselves product designers doing product design without ever giving tangible form to its function, much less thinking about CMF. I might be talking from an even older and more obsolete point of view than young Garrett, given that I remember Schauer’s interview for his master’s degree, much less documented the emergence of his contemporaries in Core77, around the same time that Gram points to as the opening of the door of popular design thinking.

Without rambling on about the old days, I’ll try to simply capture the biggest change in the past ten years – the dominance of digitalization as the sphere for the practice of design, its implications for accelerated watering down of the values and principles traditionally taught in formal design education, since many of the designers in this sphere do not need such education anymore – a trend I first saw in May 2005, on my first blog Perspective, in a post titled “Changing Landscape of Design“.

I mention trends observed in early 2005 that point to both the commodification of design as well as the increasing dominance of technology oriented design practice and practitioners – back then, I called it UI since Garrett’s eventual popularization of the term UX was still underway. I observed in a note to myself dated 26th February 2005 that the transformations taking place in design were spearheaded by the digital designers, who tended not to have emerged from the traditional design disciplines nor necessarily educated in formal design methodology, legacy, and history.

That 16 years later, these very same pioneers in the digital design sphere would reflect on the increasing commodification and watering down of design’s principles and values in the practice and dissemination of design thinking is not only a validation of the original observations made on future trajectory of the industry and the practice of the discipline, but has implications for the education of designers in academia.

My recent forays into the literature of design scholarship raise questions about divergence in practice and industry as well as geography beyond the scope of this blogpost rapidly written this morning in order to capture the early sense of something greater than simply transformations in areas of practice distinguishing approaches to the possibility of a more philosophical divergence in underlying values and principles with more impactful implications on society and futures.

This conversation will continue.

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To see the forest for the trees

Last night, Samim said something on skype that has completely changed my perspective and focal length. He pointed out that ‘the system’ is vast and beyond our comprehension. That it is nature who runs the planet. Life on earth is a complex and complicated interdependent dance of balance and harmony. And, we, humans, are simply one part of this immense natural system. We mustn’t forget that. To imagine we can understand, and then control this system is a reflection of ‘man’s’ hubris.

Immediately, this made me take a step back – in space and time – and see the whole in my mind’s eye. Humanity and its concerns shrank to its proper perspective, when seen from the point of view of ‘life on earth’. None of this would be surprising or new to our ancients and our ancestors, as well as those peoples still living far closer to life in nature.

What is different, to me, at this point in time, is that this shift in focal length came at a time when humankind is dealing with a worldwide pandemic – a human sickness – and one cannot escape the numerous and varied examples from all over the planet that provide evidence of what has become a meme – “nature is healing”. Samim said we do not know the full power and capability of nature and the planet, yet we imagine we’re in charge. He’s right.

Acknowledging this by sitting back and letting my embodied sense arrive at its own conclusions led to this reorientation of perspective. Humanity’s concerns felt petty against the backdrop of life on earth, and the great and small cycles of the planet. This humbling awareness has been a powerful and positive feeling, rather than one that diminishes. One’s problems and concerns find their proper place, and being alive and breathing in the air in the forest outside my home becomes the most important thing to evoke a sense of joy and bliss.

That which I was seeking to find since late March when I began exploring my writing and thinking on the blog – the change of perspective, the refocusing of the mind’s eye, the withdrawing of the distant vision to recenter on the domestic – suddenly came into clear focus. I feel empowered when I’m made aware that I’m part of a wilder, vaster, natural ecosystem of life on this planet, and not simply a cog in some pile of big data somewhere unnatural.

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Reflections on adopting new thinking tools and approaches

About a month ago, I committed to a disruptive change in my approach and process for development of an outcome. It has been difficult to change one’s habitual ways of thinking and doing. I had to write down the new rules of engagement in order to keep referring to them as a means to keep me on track. Like muscle memory, it is only with practice that one can replace old habits with new, even those for thinking and not simply doing.

There have only been upsides to this effort, that much I can say. The rewards have completely outperformed the effort, even though at times it feels challenging to use new thinking tools and struggle with new ways of sensemaking and processing. I’m learning that discomfort is a sign of transformation and growth, and also learning to hold on tightly to this new way of looking at things so that I do not find myself slipping back to the comfort zone of the old habitual ways.

These old ways might be comfortable only because they were habitual, not necessarily because they were the best approach to problem discovery and problem solving. The new ways feel like climbing a unbroken cliff but whenever I have managed to put them into practice for long enough to effect a change, however minor, the outcome has been exponentially better than those from the old approach.

It is too easy right now to find a ledge on the cliff and simply rest from the efforts of the past month, satisfied with arriving halfway up. And satisfied with the minor changes and improved outcomes of the new process. This is the dangerous moment. There was a reason for the change in the process, and change in thinking tools, and that reason has not yet been satisfied.

One must recommit to seeing the process through, and reflect and recommit to it every morning if necessary until the intended goal has been achieved. Otherwise the entire effort of transforming one’s approach is moot. Assuming one can pause in the process is no better than giving up.

Here, the concept of resting from the effort is that which will emerge once the process of transformation is complete. And, the new habits will become the eventual comfort zone. That will only come from continued practice. Discomfort with remaining committed to the novel, therefore, must become a signal of continued commitment to progress, and not something to be relieved.

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New Moon


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One year anniversary of experimenting with design and innovation tools for vegetable vendors in Nairobi’s slums

Felix Omondi, our lead innovation facilitator, reminds me today that its the one year anniversary of the first participatory design workshop held with mama mbogas in Mathare, one of Nairobi’s informal settlements. Categorized by us as the “tomato group” of B2C (business to consumer) vegetable vendors (mama mboga in colloquial swahili), these 8 ladies were the guinea pigs for all of us holding our breath, fearing to exhale, in case the entire concept fell apart at first contact.

Felix took the lead during this pilot sequence of workshops with the two tomato groups (B2C and B2B) of participants, since we were running them as a prototype testing exercise to evaluate the content and sequence design prior to scaling it out to the other three produce categories comprising of 6 more groups of participants. These photographs were all taken on 7th July 2020.

The first moment is always the most nerve wracking, when there’s a lot of figurative milling around and figuring out of what does it actually mean to facilitate a group discussion on the challenges faced by the participants due to the pandemic and its fallout. The young team of novice community knowledge workers had never facilitated such an activity, nor did they have any prior exposure to the things we take for granted from the practice of design – brainstorming, the use of flip charts, group discussions, and of course, facilitation of the entire session from setting up the room through to handing out tools for expression.

I remember telling them, behaving like a mother hen sending her defenseless chicks out into the big bad world, that “we could not fail” even if our entire workshop plan fell flat and participants didn’t show up or were too apathetic to enthusiastically engage with each other and the facilitators. Without that collaborative generation of creative energy in the room, facilitating group work can be challenging even for the most experienced of us. I said, look, all the funding organization requires is that we provide them with a small cash grant, a bucket of equipment like masks, soap, sanitizer, disinfectant, etc and a hot meal with meat in it. It’ll be a small respite from shouldering the burden of the challenges that the pandemic restrictions have placed on them.

These participatory design and innovation workshops were simply an experiment – the point, always, is to have fun. There was absolutely no pressure to perform. Go forth and enjoy. At worst, there will be some desultory conversation around the challenges. We won’t find out until we try. We had no idea of the surprises in store for us. One of the earliest was the discovery that all 8 participants were already sitting in their chairs ready and waiting in advance of the second session.

And now, one full year later? Many of these very same ladies you see here have implemented innovative practices to boost their business including calling their customers for orders before going to stock up at the wholesale market, home deliveries of fresh vegetables, and adopting the thinking tool introduced to help with planning expenses to manage their inventory as uncertainty and volatility continue with each phase of the pandemic.

We were able to reach 32 out of the 46 participants for a telephone survey last month who completed the sequential sessions last year for a brief follow up. Almost half have taken the initiative to adopt new practices and make changes to the established way of doing things, and almost a third are still using the thinking tools custom designed for their needs. 21.7% were enthusiastic in their responses, almost a year after the experience, expressing the belief that the sessions had facilitated innovation.

For instance, one wholesaler of bananas discovered the marketing power of sharing photographs of fresh inventory on social media, while two others have diversified into new and parallel lines of business – in shoes, and in mosquito nets, to diversify the risk of trading only in perishable fresh produce. Others were not as enthusiastic. From the 32 who responded, just over a third did not have much to add on the topic of whether the takeaways from the workshops had been of any benefit over the past year. Our team member who called them feels that this could be due to the third lockdown that is ongoing in Nairobi adding to their burden and thus influencing their mood since many were enthusiastic enough participants during the sessions. It has been a hard year for all of us.

Given that the entire project was conceived as a research through design experiment, I do not have a basis on which to compare these results against others. On the other hand, there are at least 15 informal traders in fresh vegetables operating in Nairobi’s informal settlements who have adopted design thinking and innovation as part of their business practices, as evidenced by their responses one year after the fact. Innovation can be democratized.

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Going back to first principles

It seems to me, when I finally do get the space and bandwith to step aside from academic reading and writing, to reflect upon the magic of the Kalevala, as I began to do, only a few short months ago, that the real message in Kaleva’s songs, is the power inherent in going back to first principles.

If indeed, the magic of the word song, as crafted in the runot, lies in knowing the origin of things, before you can begin to sing the songs of transformation, then it is quite clear that the starting point is grounded firmly in the first principles of the object of your singing.

As I rewrite the draft of my research paper, I noticed how often I mentioned the need for me to go back to first principles in order to wholly understand what it was I was doing, and how these processes and tools would provide me with the skilled knowledge to attempt to redesign (transform) the outcome.

Relying on the later explorations and extensions of a tradition may never offer the same kind of clear thinking that going back to its founding principles can provide. I knew I could not go wrong by taking these original concepts as my guiding principles whilst attempting to do something novel within that space.

That is, when one is already in an unknown space where little exists from the past to guide us, then it is the first principles of our chosen methodology that can provide the guidelines for experimentation with a degree of confidence that one can’t fall off the cliff if these original concepts had robustly stood the test of time long enough to referred to as the first principles.

This allows for building new constructs in a manner that remains within the conceptual space of the theoretical knowledge and pushing the boundaries of experimentation while remaining grounded in the foundation of the knowledge base. An anchor for a hot air balloon, as a metaphor, if you will, of discovery.
And, this offers me the insight that if I were to do a comparative analysis of methodologies, then its not the word philosophy that I would be comparing but the first principles, which, by their very nature, contain the values embedded throughout the process influencing the outcome in distinctly different manners.

Thus, 14 years after writing on Why is design important? starting my essay with the sentence that ‘design is first and foremost a philosophy, a system of values.. ” I would now rewrite it to state that design methodologies are constructed on first principles that emerged in the early days of that particular approach and its their comparative study which would shed light on their differences, as it pertains to their relevance and impact on design outcomes for our collective and shared emerging future on this planet.

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Seismic Shock: Approaching the old practice of design from the new perspective of today

The wrenching shift in my perspective from the outcomes of a project to its process – forced by circumstances of scholarship less than three weeks ago – has kept me preoccupied with reams of paper. I can sense the difference in slowly reading through printed out versions of selected journal articles, annotating their margins and underlining, in the old ways of scholarship, than the perceptually faster scanning that occurs with text on screens.

On the upside, I believe I have managed to reorient my thinking towards the processes rather than the content. This is key to my transition from practitioner of design and innovation motivated research in the informal economy to academic scholar pursuing a doctoral degree.

On the downside, given my decades of work experience accrued at age 55, I can see the evolution of my own professional practice reflected in the literature as and when it attempts to document the transformations that have taken place in the practice of design, particularly over the past 15 years or so. In a recent paper, I felt the jolt of recognition from the observer’s perspective at mentions made of key projects and papers that were transforming design practice (see Sanders and Stappers, 2008). Did I not blog that project for Core77? Didn’t I mention this in my own blog? Was I not there experiencing all these innovations and transformations and changes?

A critical inflection point for the expansion and transformation of design practice can be said to have begun around the turn of the century (Bhan, 2004) when designers began to reposition themselves as partners, rather than vendors, to industry (Portigal and Bhan, 2005 November) in response to the changing landscape of manufacturing, outsourcing, and industrial design practice (Bhan, 2005 March).

CK Prahalad  (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2002; 2004a; 2004b; Prahalad and Krishnan, 2008) is credited with introducing the concept of co-creation in the corporate context. His publications together with collaborators have been consistently cited in the literature wherever the roles of the user and the designer have been explored in new ways (Dell’Era and Landoni, 2014), as well as approaches that support co-creation in different arenas such as co-design (Tseng and Piller, 2003; Sanders and Stappers, 2008; Russo-Spena and Mele, 2012), participatory design (Holmlid, 2009; Björgvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2010; 2012) and service design (Forlizzi and Zimmerman, 2013; Miettinen and Valtonen, 2014).

Now, two decades later, I believe that the practice of design is again changing and expanding in ways that have their roots in the transformations that took place in the recent past, but influenced greatly by changes in the landscape of users themselves. Literature until now has considered the transformation of design practice from the perspective of design processes, that is from the point of view of the designer and the design researcher (though, as Sanders has said, when she first mapped the changing landscape of design research (Sanders, 2007), that these roles too are undergoing changes) rather than the users themselves.

What has been the impact of the advent of increasing democratization of design and innovation on the users themselves – that is, on everyday people who are not trained in design?

Campbell (2017) calls people who design without formal design training “lay designers”, so as to relocate the locus of power and asymmetry of information (which Prahalad himself calls the root of poverty). This shift can be most clearly seen in the healthcare sector – first noted by Sanders herself (Sanders and Stappers, 2008) where early adopters of design and innovation methods, formerly the purview of professionals, through initial projects in co-creation and co-design have led to the proliferation of literature in the healthcare field that reference design methods and techniques and processes, without necessarily involving a practicing designer in the process.

As a professional industry watcher of long standing (Bhan, Core77 2004-2010; Portigal and Bhan, 2005) I have myself observed the diffusion of innovation methods in the guise of human centered design toolkits and handbooks spread from practitioners to institutions (Campbell, 2013) and then thereafter become commonplace in the indigenous startup ecosystems dotting the African continent. Concepts and approaches which were barely recognized when I first stepped foot on the continent (Out of Africa, Samsung, 2008 with Experientia) are now accessible via digital platforms for formal and informal learning.

I can see the changes in the literature when I search for design related keywords – publications from a far wider variety of journals and disciplines show up than what used to be the case when I was studying at the Institute of Design at the turn of the century (circa 2003). On one hand, the debate goes that formal design education and professional practice imbues designers with advanced skills in making and doing. On the other, the trend towards facilitating the multidisciplinary nature of creativity in higher education and business (Design Council and Hefce, 2007) is one that I’ve been part and parcel of from the early days (see Bhan, 2004; 2005).

As every good reflective practitioner (Schon, 1983) knows, there are moments in time when one must pause to reflect on the massive changes that one is experiencing while immersed in the process, in order to step outside of the changes and observe them with some subjective measure of objectivity. The year after the systemic shock of the global pandemic was experienced by everyone living around the entire world (more or less) is one such moment.



Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P. A. (2010, November). Participatory design and” democratizing innovation”. In Proceedings of the 11th Biennial participatory design conference (pp. 41-50).

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P. A. (2012). Agonistic participatory design: working with marginalised social movements. CoDesign, 8(2-3), 127-144.

Campbell, A. D. (2013). Designing for Development in Africa: A Critical Exploration of Literature and Case Studies from the Disciplines of Industrial Design and Development Studies. In Proceedings of the Gaborone International Design Conference (GIDEC).

Campbell, A. D. (2017). Lay designers: Grassroots innovation for appropriate change. Design Issues, 33(1), 30-47.

Dell’Era, C., & Landoni, P. (2014). Living Lab: A methodology between user‐centred design and participatory design. Creativity and Innovation Management, 23(2), 137-154.

Forlizzi, J., & Zimmerman, J. (2013, August). Promoting service design as a core practice in interaction design. In Proceedings of the 5th International Congress of International Association of Societies of Design Research-IASDR (Vol. 13).

Holmlid, S. (2009, September). Participative; co-operative; emancipatory: From participatory design to service design. In Conference Proceedings ServDes. 2009; DeThinking Service; ReThinking Design; Oslo Norway 24-26 November 2009 (No. 059, pp. 105-118). Linköping University Electronic Press.

Miettinen, S., & Valtonen, A. (2014). Service design methods in event design. In Event Design (pp. 41-52). Routledge.

Prahalad, C. K., & Ramaswamy, V. (2004). Co-creation experiences: The next practice in value creation. Journal of interactive marketing, 18(3), 5-14.

Sanders, E. B. N., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the new landscapes of design. Co-design, 4(1), 5-18.

Russo‐Spena, T., & Mele, C. (2012). “Five Co‐s” in innovating: a practice‐based view. Journal of Service Management.

Tseng, M. M., & Piller, F. T. (2003). The customer centric enterprise. In The customer centric enterprise (pp. 3-16). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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Personal reflections on the remote resilience project (April 2020 – August 2020)

Anonymized quote and photograph of participant by Tazama Media, September 2020

As I prepare to speak on Tuesday morning at a conference being organized online, I was moved by my review of the materials gathered during last year’s rapid remote resilience project to reflect on my personal impressions of the project. Over and above anything else, over the past week I have found myself moved close to tears, yet the emotions are joyous. I had no idea how the experimental project would work out when I started, and I’d encourage the young team of facilitators on the ground by saying we were providing a hot meal with meat and a cash grant and a bucket of cleaning supplies, we couldn’t fail the mamas if our participatory sessions fell flat. The quote above captures it all.

This past week, I’ve been looking over the just completed telephone survey following up with our participants 9 months after the intervention ended last August. I can see the results – they’re not always obvious, and some concepts failed but the sense of joy also came from the lead facilitator informing me that they’d innovated on the ground with the tools I’d provided them when they found that the concept wasn’t gaining traction. They would not have thought to this if I had not devolved agency for planning and executing the implementation of the conceptual project design to them. In the rush of completing the project after the prototype testing and iteration with the team, none had brought this adjustment to the content of the participatory session up with me.

I discovered it in the follow up survey transcripts when I found a significant majority of the participants mentioning the tool’s usefulness in enabling them to plan and to save all through this difficult year. Even those groups whose content stream did not contain the introduction of this tool. It is changing the way I think about the tool and its applicability, if indeed it managed to gain the traction that it did, and was so enthusiastically adopted. I’m also wondering out loud if concepts without a tangible anchor in the real world context of the participants themselves or without a means to relate to their daily practices and mindset are more challenging to grasp and contextualize?

The combination of tool and concept that the facilitator team came up with based on their own experience of running the participatory sessions and their evaluation of how the content was received by the participants is probably something that may not have struck me if I had been present. As Felix, our lead innovation facilitator, remarked when we reflected together on the project last Friday, there were times when the facilitator team was convinced of the value of an approach or new practice but the participants pushed back vociferously that it didn’t make sense or it would not work. They then found a way to convince them by using evidence provided by a micro-experiment conducted together with the participants to show them the beneficial outcome of the activity.

Here though, the team could see that the more established group of traders (B2B) would also benefit from a tool that I’d only introduced in the content stream for the B2C less established trader groups, and that the advanced planning approach intended for them was challenged by worldview and mindset common to them all. I do not share that common worldview with the facilitators and the participants who are all from the same neighbourhoods and communities. It strikes me that I must explore this difference in approach by the facilitators some more. How were they distinguishing the resistance to a novel idea that required empirical evidence to convince the participants to explore adopting it versus when a novel concept failed to gain traction enough to provide any value?

All in all, there is much food for thought here on the role of design methodology and approaches in the context of development, and, I’d argue, how we describe development in the 21st century.


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What is social design?

Social design is an emerging stream of design that is still finding its space and boundaries (Chen et al., 2016; Koskinen, 2016; Markussen, 2017). Markussen (2017) argues against Manzini’s (2015) depiction of the ‘social’ in social design implying that it only applies to situations where people are poor or marginalized or recovering from a natural disaster. He makes that point that social design, based on his analytical framework (Markussen, 2017), is relevant for people regardless of their class or economic circumstances, and that a natural disaster need not have to impact them in order for a small, humble design intention to attempt a decisive qualitative change in their circumstances.

Koskinen and Hush (2016) do not confine the bounds of social design to only the micro or meso level as explicitly as Markussen (2017) has done but approach the analysis of different types of social design from the scale of the way the design intention is scoped, eg. “Utopian”; “Molecular”; and “Sociological” social design. Here, Utopian describes the kinds of massive change visions of societal transformation that would be exemplified by projects such as Massive Change by Bruce Mau or the earlier era’s Fullerine visions. As an outcome of one of these grand social visions, the National Institute of Design whose emergence and design is based on a white paper by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s, I am making a note to myself here to come back one day and analyse where NID fits within these frameworks of social design.

“Molecular” design, as described by Koskinen and Hush (2016) best fits within Markussen’s (2017) analytical framework which in turn serves to help distinguish between social innovation, social entrepreneurship, and social design. I cannot disagree with his point that social design is best attempted at the molecular level, however, over time, the potential exists within the scope of social design outcomes for them to scale, albeit in a manner that diverges from how impact at scale is attempted in social innovation or by social entrepreneurs. For example, if one introduces a custom designed tool for planning expenses that meets the needs and constraints of a selected group of vegetable vendors in Nairobi’s slums, and they find it useful enough to share it with others in their social networks, then it has organically scaled as it demonstrated its value within that social milieu.

What also caught my attention was Koskinen’s (2016) point that the object (of social design) is the social – social structures, processes, and forms of action – rather than a social problem. From my own perspective of evolving and developing both research methodology and protocol as my own understanding of the target audience and their operating conditions increased over the years, Koskinen’s object of social design clearly describes an approach for design research that must inform design of interventions and programmes with social implications in complex societal systems.

That is, if the object of the social in social design is to address design aiming at the social structures, processes, and forms of action, even at the micro level for a confined group or community (Markussen, 2017), some amount of research is required beforehand for effective design. It cannot all be done in a participatory manner at all stages of knowledge generation and development but instead, as one’s point of view moves around the social system being documented one’s methodology changes in response to one’s distance or proximity to the system.

Taking the newly emergent definitions, both broadly scoped and open ended such as offered by Koskinen and Hush (2016) or more narrowly scoped, such as that which fits within Markussen’s (2017) framework, it seems as though this new social design is something I have already been a part of since its inception – mentioned by many as being a result of the financial crisis of 2008 – and must scope my space within its attempts to bound itself.

An easy answer, as always, is “social design for humanitarian purposes” but that is the problem which my own body of work has always addressed as the barrier to good design. Here, because I’m practicing my picky academic worldview, I’d define good design as which is able to lower the barriers to the adoption of its output, minimize the dropout rate if its a programme, and create value for the end-users or the adopters of the design, depending on who is the real end user here.

This post is less than 800 words long, and unlike any previous post I’ve written that’s been based analysing literature, I did not need to refer to any of the journal papers until looking up Koskinen’s (2016) specific words used to describe the object of social design. That’s because it had particularly caught my attention from the way it reflected the work I’ve been doing within informal economic ecosystems. I feel I’ve found my way to connect with my Core77 avatar of long ago.



Chen, D. S., Cheng, L. L., Hummels, C., & Koskinen, I. (2016). Social design: An introduction. International Journal of Design, 10(1), 1-5.

Koskinen, I., & Hush, G. (2016). Utopian, molecular and sociological social design. International Journal of Design, 10(1), 65-71.

Koskinen, I. (2016). The Aesthetics of Action in New Social Design. In Proceedings of DRS 2016 International Conference: Future-Focused Thinking.” Proceedings of DRS (Vol. 1).

Markussen, T. (2017). Disentangling ‘the social’ in social design’s engagement with the public realm. CoDesign, 13(3), 160-174.

Manzini, E. (2015). Design, when everybody designs: An introduction to design for social innovation. MIT Press

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