The application of design thinking for public sector projects is one of the most interesting and challenging areas of work we do at Curiosity. Design thinking is variedly defined, with some, for example, choosing to focus on how professionally trained designers make sense of the world. Our design thinking approach is based on human-centered design, an iterative problem-solving approach that emphasises systems thinking, cultural sensitivity, and modularity in engaging complex socio-technical systems (such as healthcare and transportation) to reduce social and political disruption.
In the version of human centered design we applied, any stage of the design process may prompt the need to reflect on the conditions, processes, and impact of design activity. Ideally, designing should start at the "Inspiration" stage in which those running the project develop understanding that encourages empathy with end-users before marshalling resources or disrupting the lives of users. However, the application of this approach sometimes starts in the "Innovation" stage, when our clients are in the middle of developing and narrowing down solutions for testing, or in the "Implementation" stage when clients realise that there are challenges in the materialisation of solutions.
For this project, we were approached by a Philippine national government agency that aimed to implement bottom-up livelihood rehabilitation planning with artisanal fisherfolk, one of the poorest marginalised sectors in the country, who were about to be resettled given their proximity to "no build zones". These areas that were within 40 meters of coastlines that are vulnerable to hazards, such as storm surges and tsunamis. The premise of the engagement is that the "need"to move fisherfolk inland to keep them "safe" necessitates livelihood skills other than fishing. With our clients, we developed a design workshop structure that would first allow us to understand and empathise fisher folks' livelihood priorities.
Image 1. Fisherfolks about to be resettled inland challenged the government's 40-meter no build zones.
When doing research, I aim to be proven wrong. Finishing a research activity with no transformation in thinking regarding the phenomenon at hand makes me extremely uncomfortable. To a certain extent, workshops designed to elicit understanding and empathy need to be assessed in the same way. Otherwise, what's the point?
In this workshop, fisherfolk participants overturned initial assumptions regarding their openness to be relocated, which, in turn, shaped the extent to which they were willing to engage in livelihood-related discussions. Their concerns about the relocation programme were bigger than the issue of livelihood. The idea of relocation brought forward fundamental concerns regarding the the loss of their collective identity as fisherfolk. "We'll be like fish removed from water they," a fisherfolk representative explained to the group.
Image 2. Discussions with fisherfolk shifted from the initial topic of livelihood rehabilitation to disaster response and preparedness.
This required an immediate recalibration of the aims and structure of the workshop. Whereas we initially assumed we would be discussing livelihood rehabilitation, a key component of disaster recovery, we shifted the discussion to topics that fisherfolk participants were more willing to discuss, such as disaster preparedness and response. Meanwhile, our project partners realised the significance of introducing livelihood rehabilitation programmes via design thinking workshops to fisherfolk communities whose resettlement plans were acceptable within their context.
This raises plenty of questions about the viability of the resettlement programme, and, in general, of the application of human centered design to solving challenges that exacerbate the vulnerability of the poor. In this case, is there anyone more qualified to define "safety" and fisherfolk "needs" other than the fisherfolk themselves? One reason behind the popularity of human-centered design is the modularity of this approach, which is perceived to lessen the risks and impact of bad design. Can modularity complicate the effectiveness of design for socio-technical challenges? What role should technocratic "experts" play in shaping the lives of the poor? What are the challenges and possibilities of using human-centered design to address the issues rooted in historical inequality and injustice?
I am addressing these questions at length in a forthcoming book chapter for an edited volume addressing the need for new concepts to think through contemporary disasters. The publication will be based on a 2020 conference organised by the Institute for Climate Energy and Disaster Solutions at the Australian National University.. Stay tuned here for more.