ACCRA, GHANA | 2018 - 2020

Community Systems

Can self-managed public infrastructure increase the resilience of vulnerable communities?
How can designers support grassroots endeavors without perpetuating systems of oppression?
Inspired by the passion of Ayawaso East’s residents, I explored how design research catalyzes positive social, economic, service, and environmental change. The local knowledge captured through my research revealed a shared community aspiration of wanting to organize and scale a grassroots operated waste management system powered by a digitally-enabled bartering economy.
By planning and conducting independent qualitative research and leading the product development process, the results of my work include the creation of a grassroots waste management strategy, as well as the development of an app concept that would help communities organize their own infrastructure projects. The app, also known as Swappl, intended to enable local residents to initiate and manage their autonomous waste system, powered by barter exchange. Swappl evolved to become a civic tech startup that I co-founded and led as CEO from 2017-2019.

Outside of the development of the Swappl app, my experience with this project inspired me to develop an anti-exploitative design framework, which was published by the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Design Museum.
— UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Design Museum of London’s Design Research for Change(DR4C) publication, 2019

— MIT's School of Architecture and Planning "Outstanding Thesis" award, 2018

— MIT FinTech's Social Impact Prize, 2017
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Due to a history of informal settlement patterns and limited municipal capacity, Ayawaso East’s residents lack adequate essential municipal services, such as waste management. Tired of waiting for inadequate top-down interventions to improve local waste infrastructure, the residents of Ayawaso East would like to harness the power of local human capital and grassroots organizing to create and maintain their own waste management system.


Designing an equitable process

Out of the 2-year process of research, design, and product development, my 6-month research phase included co-designing with local residents and government agencies through contextual inquiry, visioning workshops, interviews, and rapid prototyping sessions. My research centered around understanding Ayawaso East's residents' lived experiences, challenges, and opportunities as it relates to their waste management system. By embedding myself within the community and deeply engaging and understanding their context, it because clear that the community would like to transform their existing waste pick-up volunteer service into a robust cashless waste economy that employs local youth, reduces neighborhood litter, and can be completely managed by the community's residents.

By working closely with community leaders and active residents, I translated their stories and ideas into research insights, service blueprints, product roadmaps, and other resources that the community can utilize as they continue to evolve their grassroots waste management system. My design research experience in Ayawaso East reveals the essentiality and interconnectedness of collaboration, transparency, support, social capital, and local knowledge and imagination as the means for promoting equity and autonomy in historically underinvested communities.

Throughout my time co-working with Ayawaso East's residents, I was intentional in balancing ways to support the community without perpetuating extractive and paternalistic power dynamics. Throughout the project, I centered and evolved ways that I uphold accessibility, equity, social resilience, and community autonomy in my work. Inspired by the ways this project has challenged and helped me evolve my principles and practice in stronger ways, I synthesized my reflections into a hydridized anti-exploitative design research model. My research model, "Design without Extraction", serves as a framework for designing initiatives that prioritize community inclusion and autonomy in processes that impact their lives.

“In order to dismantle unequal power relationships between marginalized communities and those considered as the “expert”, design interventions should be held accountable based on how it achieves opportunities for equity, self-determination, deep dialogue, and context-sensitivity.

By emphasizing process over product and supporting rather than leading, design research can restructure new relationships between underserved communities and those with the power to help. A new anti-exploitative design research paradigm, can fundamentally challenge the presumptions of the privileged and dismantle the root of systemic issues, rather than superficially addressing proximate causes of societal injustices.”
— Nneka Sobers
"Intervention without Exploitation"
Full essay available in the Design Museum's "Design Research for Change" publication
Design + Development

Leveraging technology to unlock community potential

Passionate about developing ways that technology can activate opportunities for community empowerment, I was excited to expand on the existing ways that Ayawaso East's residents used technology to help them manage their grassroots waste management system. During my research, I learned that most of Ayawaso East's residents owned smartphones and used various social media apps to self-organize. Since Ayawaso East is a low-income community, the community did not have access to capital that would fund and sustain their community-owned waste system. Therefore, it was essential to develop alternative ways for the community to pool together their resources and compensating their local waste management employees without having to depend on conventional forms of money.

Given the community's financial constraints, it is common for the community's residents to barter for food, childcare, clothing, etc. Since the community wanted to scale their volunteer waste pickup efforts into a financially sustainable waste service, I developed a way for the community to design their waste system based on a digitally-enabled barter economy. My research project transformed into creating an app that would allow Ayawaso East's grassroots waste management team to organize waste pickups and employ local residents by compensating local labor with other local services. For example, a waste management employee can be paid in credits from a local grocery store that has registered for local waste pickup.

The creation of the app, eventually led to me co-founding a civic tech startup called "Swappl". As Swappl continued to evolve beyond my work with Ayawaso East's residents, Swappl later transformed into a social bartering app that people could use globally for initiatives beyond waste management.

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