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Book Chapter: Knowledge controversies of "design thinking" for community participation within disaster recovery

This book chapter was developed from reflections regarding my applied work in disaster recovery projects that deployed "design thinking" (popularised by the Stanford and IDEO) - and that were characterised by communities' contestation - even outright rejection - of project aims. The chapter is for the book Design for Emergency Management (van Manen et al., 2024).

Image 1. "Design for Emergency Management" cover featuring 4 different disaster scenes with an overlay of graphics.

Using the concept of "knowledge controversies" (Whatmore, 2013), I view these acts of contestation as a creative force that can shift the political orientations and values of project proponents. Communities questioning the knowledge of "experts"can prompt reassessments of projects that are irrelevant to the former's lifeworlds as well as bring design for disaster recovery closer to the lived experiences of those affected by calamity. Two cases involving Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) comprise my discussion: one on "design thinking" to develop humanitarian shelter for a women's rights NGO and another on "design thinking" for a national government agency's bureaucratic re-orientation in conceptualising livelihood rehabilitation for fisherfolk during the transition between the Aquino and Duterte administrations.

I dwell on two aspects of the "design thinking" process: 1) the Empathize stage and 2) the modular structure of the approach. The Empathize stage of the "design thinking" process can indeed provide a venue for disaster-affected communities to participate in decision-making for design-driven disaster recovery. However, project budgets in the Global South are often too limited, thus preventing the iterative evaluation of proposed solutions that is meant to be a key feature of the "design thinking" process. This limitation results in a lack of specific opportunities for communities to critique designs that are meant to address their needs. The lack of formal opportunities to critique designs and the so-called expert knowledge that comprises them could result in more pointed resistance via informal channels.

The modular approach of "design thinking" (Empathise-Define-Ideate-Prototype-Test) benefits donors and decision-makers more than disaster affected communities. As early as the Empathize stage, which usually consists of fairly lower-cost activities such as user research and workshops, project proponents using this approach can easily pull the plug with minimal risk if they foresee that the project will become too costly or too "political." Meanwhile, convenience and risk management on the part of project-proponents may spell disillusionment for disaster-affected communities and groups whose intergenerational marginality is underpinned by a long historical arc of empty promises and cancelled projects.

All in all, "design thinking" for disaster recovery could work with stronger commitments from project proponents to iterate solutions, timely project planning, and decision-making involving disaster-affected groups at the highest possible level and at the earliest possible time.

Below is the chapter abstract:

Access the chapter draft below:

The Knowledge Controversies of Design Thinking_DRAFT_v3_28June2022
Download PDF • 465KB


Cajilig, P. G. (2024). Knowledge controversies of “design thinking” for community participation within disaster recovery. In S. M. Van Manen, C. Jaenichen, T. S. Lin, K. Kremer, & R. Ramírez, Design for Emergency Management (1st ed., pp. 31–48). Routledge.

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