Solutions, prejudice, problems & comrades South-North collaboration on social innovation

Photo credits: Ale Sone

In 2016 I participated on a quite unique residency program called Age of Wonderland (AoW), organized by Hivos, the Design Academy and Baltan Laboratories.

AoW’s purpose is to drive research, dialogue, and collaboration between fellows working on social innovation projects in the Global South, the creative and technological community in Eindhoven, and other networks in The Netherlands. These collaborations, processes and perspectives, were presented during the Dutch Design Week 2016.

Being ‘radical collaboration’ an idea I’m really interested in, looking at this particular experience of intended dialogue plus collaboration seems just right.

Whose voice?

It is not an issue whether we as global south fellows have a voice. We went to The Netherlands and had a platform to speak. Rather, the point seems to be whether we got to be heard or not, by whom, to what purpose (and the other way around). Did we really engage in meaningful dialogue?

Photo Paz Bernaldo

Good intentions, resources, and platforms for transcultural collaboration are necessary but not sufficient. And this is something the organizers of this particular program are well aware of. It is not enough to make people talk to each other, discuss, or even party together (although the last really helps). It’s not ‘the exchange does the trick’, but rather the type of exchange that could or not do the trick.

Concrete and fruitful collaboration seems to require a specific type of dialogue. Often, however, not enough attention is given to this and how to make it happen. But AoW has actually approached the issue by explicitly experimenting with a different sort of dialogue and collaboration. As a four years program that ends this year, AoW will soon show results from their learning process. I’m quite curious.

Whose knowledge?

AoW acknowledges and celebrates diversity as a vital principle, that “looking for differences and combining perspectives can make all the difference” (Starren, 2015). But the program, I think, took a step forward by openly going against the idea of innovation and knowledge only coming from the centers of power, in this case countries of the Global North.

This somehow relates to what Anita Say Chan (2013: preface) says about the dynamics of contemporary digital culture. “Despite its uniquely global dimensions”, digital culture is often assumed to come from ‘more legitimate’, productive sites like Silicon Valley and similar others in innovation capitals. “It is there that digital culture presumably originates and has its purest form — only to be replicated elsewhere”.

By considering diversity not as a nice to have but as a key requirement, AoW fights the widespread assumption that “innovators of new technologies in elite design centers can or should speak for the global rest”. And this is an important endeavor because as Chan says, “the authoritative role of innovation centers for extending design and invention is rarely questioned”, which also happens with the periphery, “viewed unquestioningly as a zone of diffusion and simple uptake of such designs” (ibid.).

Even though AoW doesn’t deal only or specifically with digital culture, the social innovation it questions and invites is a practice permeated by it.

So there it is, AoW wanting to place the periphery alongside the center, and battling with the exercise of horizontal collaboration (whether that means radical is another issue). AoW goes against the powerful tradition that assumes anything worth of being called innovation must come from rich countries.

Photo Paz Bernaldo

For Arne Hendriks, Dutch artist and curator of the residency, the biggest lesson from the 2016 version of the Dutch Design Week was realizing how prejudices still prevail, towards the work of non-western artists or presenters. And that overcoming them involves “looking at the other person for its qualities and experiences”, something that mostly happens –he says- through north and south professionals working side by side. AoW is “an exciting challenge in communication” , one about “listening to people from parts of the world who we don’t normally listen to” (Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee radio interview).

But, has this exercise produced the expected outcomes? Not yet, Hendriks says. People visiting the DDW often don’t look at what the other person is presenting but to what they already know about the issue being addressed, “a subconscious prejudice, always getting in the way”. Having the power of their knowledge (or a knowledge that’s perceived as more powerful than others) if the other doesn’t fit into that world, then he/she has no value. And this is, he says, the most difficult issue to tackle. It seems then that western expert knowledge stills reins as simply superior to dialogue, to collaboration, to discovery.

“It is not what we don’t know that hurt us, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so” (attributed to Mark Twain)

Let’s then say we need dialogues that debunk prejudices (or biases) of the type ‘we know best because we’re from the west’, and place center power knowledge and periphery knowledge as equals. Hendriks is saying let’s make the center open up. But, how do we make that happen in platforms similar to AoW? Is it putting southern practitioners/researchers/fellows to work side by side with northern professionals the only way for a good dialogue + collaboration to emerge? Can a horizontal dialogue take place with larger audiences or groups during DDW type of events? How to build the capability to hear?

What do dialogues look like?

First, how do these North-South dialogues look like? This is a tricky question because of course they take place in a myriad of ways, generally speaking, but also in the context of this particular program (AoW) and event (DDW). So, bear in mind I’ll simplify.

Also, in what follows I’ll leave aside the dialogues and interactions between fellows and our northern co-fellows (I partnered with two amazing designers from Holland and Spain), which corresponds to the ‘professionals working side by side’ AoW facilitates. (An extra note I did not meet my co-fellows at events, AoW people introduced us.)

AoW fosters ‘playful interactions’, during the residency but mostly throughout the DDW to provide a platform for potential partners or collaborators to meet and match: presentations, seminar discussions, one-to-one meetings, and workshops. So I’ll consider these types of activities.

However their differences, in all these settings I noted one key recurrent element: a readiness to jump into proposing and/or analyzing solutions, instead of analyzing problems. Events tend to be solution-driven (irrespective of their location and subject), rather than considering a concrete problem we should solve, we tend to look out and say here we have a solution, let’s adopt it.

It is true that in seminar discussions experts enlighten us on macro problems, providing evidence and analysis. But often they quickly move to solutions (maybe to try save the mood of the audience). Likewise, during presentations problems are often analyzed by the speaker to later show implemented solutions or plans, to demonstrate progress or impact. And even though all this might be necessary, these types of events do not really provide space for engaging, collaboration-seeking analysis and dialogue (only a few people get to speak or ask, and we don’t get to know who’s siting next to us). Feedback systems are absent. And let’s be honest: the audiences’ face expressions “usually swings between boredom, despair and rage” (Green, 2016).

Solutions seem like the ‘dialogue exchange coin’ we often used. A coin that also tends to be used in one-to-one meetings with organizations that managed to solve something and therefore present their successful solutions to the ‘needy’ counterpart.

Just look at all these faces

Fishing for problems or solutions?

Thinking of events like seminar discussions, presentations and workshops, with room for medium or large audiences, and also one-to-one meetings, the dialogue I believe is needed should include space for truly analyzing the problems at stake. It should allow us to open up the space of the problem. I mean not only the global challenges (like the inequalities of big data), but also the more specific problems (e.g. the local government doesn’t engage) that steal sleeping time from those trying to tackle them.

A group of academics from the Center for International Development at Harvard University have been doing great work developing an approach to deal with problems and avoid jumping into copy-paste solutions (their free e-book is here). They make a compelling case for a problem driven approach to change. Their approach is called Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) and it deals specifically with “new strategies and tactics to build the capability of public organizations to execute and implement”.

Dealing with state capability means dealing with capability to hear. So despite us not talking about States here, I believe there are important lessons to get from their work. Mainly because in order to reform the way we engage in north-south dialogue we need to improve our capability to hear.

Following PDIA, what does ‘truly analyzing’ mean? It means constructing and de-construct problems “to find entry points for real change”, in order to effectively seek out real potential north-south collaborations. The point is “defining and constructing the problem so people pay attention to it”. And this essentially requires “looking at the context in which the problem is being played out” (Matt Andrews).

When people gather up at events like seminars and workshops often the focus stays on macro challenges that are quickly described without any process of definition and refining; process which requires an understanding of the context. And then the search for solutions quickly makes its entrance. Many assuming this is the only place where we can collaborate, in giving ideas for solutions. Solutions brainstorms are a common resource.

We get “carried away with solutions at the expense of paying attention to where we are” (ibid.) or to the context of the problem we have at hand. We strip problems of their context to make them neat and easily digestible, which in itself represents a missed opportunity for debate and impactful co-operation, to then move to solutions seeking processes. Getting into the nitty-gritty of problems is certainly more complex, less ‘traditionally’ inviting maybe than focusing on nice solutions brainstorms. But more thought provoking and prejudice challenging. Discussing the contexts might involve getting into tricky political, economic or structural issues. But with the right approaches, the opening up of the problem space can be actually manageable, transformative and help us build the capability to hear, even during short-term events like seminars.

Problem-driven collaboration

Tackling social innovation in a multidisciplinary and transcultural way we need to start innovating the way we talk to each other, change our emphases. And this requires intentionality, inspiration and method. Instead of focusing on showcasing neat pitch elevators aimed to quickly but briefly enchant audiences, let’s build the capability to hear each other and to collaborate on problem-driven change (or at least let’s try and see what happens). Collaboration-seeking dialogue between center and periphery requires explicitly experimenting with new approaches and methods.

The playfulness AoW and maybe similar platforms promote would benefit from methods intended to open up the problem space and let people explore and find each other’s strengths in the arena. Dealing first with problems instead of solutions gives relevance to context but also to the skills each could bring to the table. And context is what we need to provoke empathy, and we need empathy to fight prejudice. Maybe we need to seek what virtual reality does when by placing you in a context you wouldn’t otherwise experiment you suddenly grow your understanding (even if just a tiny bit). If the point is to fight the knowledge prejudice, then placing ourselves in others’ contexts might be key. One of the things that happen when the focus in on generating or analyzing solutions, is that some have answers (often the expert knowledge of the center) while others hunt for solutions; some seem to have valuable knowledge, others don’t. When the focus is on problems, everyone walks the space on a more discovery-equal foot.

Photo credits: Ale Sone

So what next

Social innovation projects everywhere and maybe especially in the Global South face dysfunctional systems, and hardship in every corner. A generative approach to collaboration with northern actors, which means using techniques like brainstorms or fast incubation of solutions won’t help much only by themselves and at the beginning of a process. Building the right collaborative partnerships requires a right understanding of the right problem. In other words, if we are up to find and collaborate with northern/southern counterparts, we need to build an understanding of the problem with them, let them enter this space and become enthusiastic towards solving it. Let’s do the first key exploratory moves with them (understanding the sort of terrain we are in), and then see who joins next expedition (looking for solutions) and then the final attempt to the top (namely developing/trying out solutions).

Traditional approaches to event making won’t ever be good enough. Fixing this to allow building the capability to hear among audiences won’t be easy. Following a problem-driven approach to dialogue would only be part of the changes needed. But the point is that the formats are tired and unproductive. Let’s really get rid of them.

We need to change the way we engage in conversations, and that requires questioning the status quo that says big conferences with passive audiences are a requirement, or that conferences always need a ‘main’ speaker.

As Duncan Green says about international development conferences, there is a need for running multiple parallel experiments with multiple events formats and compare the results “in terms of participant feedback, how much people retain a month after the event, etc.” In collaboration seeking events then key would be to know whether new alliances or speculative meetings are held after the event, but also whether participants saw their points of view challenged.

If I could advance a first experiment, it would be a problem immersion seminar, where a problem gets collectively constructed and then de-constructed, following PDIA’s guidance, with a mid size audience composed of random people. Maybe people who come with a general disposition to collaborate. And then let problems “provide a rallying point for coordinating distributed agents” (Building State Capability p.141).

Thinking of collaboration platforms as rallies rather than traditional conferences might help us really shake things up, and see and hear the north/south others as comrades.

(Providing us with an authorized space for meeting up and working with comrades: our northern co-fellows, was the icing of the cake of the AoW process. Let’s see if some of that camaraderie can be created at events with larger groups!)

Photo credits: Ale Sone
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