SafetyNet Technologies invited me to lead an Innovate UK project to introduce technology to artisanal fisheries in Peru. We used systemic design principles, with the goals of reducing bycatch and environmental impact while improving socio-economic outcomes for fishing communities.
Complex Challenges Demand Systemic Change
Our world and our challenges are growing in complexity and interconnectedness. Climate change, food security, mass migration and pandemics cannot be met with old approaches of nations individually contributing, comparing and even competing with one another. These are global challenges that do not recognise borders but demand that we work more collaboratively and systemically.
Even within national borders and local government jurisdictions, no single organisation can solve intractable social, environmental and economic issues. Moreover, no single industry or sector can go it alone and make the difference needed. This is because no matter how clearly defined a challenge may be, its edges blur as soon as it meets the context of real life and the systems that shape it. There are overlaps and intersections that don’t neatly fit how services, organisations and policies are set up to address them. Testament to this is the rise of collaborative impact models that bring together the public, private and third sectors to redefine objectives and establish incentives.
Design is a versatile and useful lens for embracing the truth, complexity and multi-facedness of our challenges and the systems that hold the causes and solutions. Design’s human-centredness helps us at an individual level to understand and deliver meaningful change. Its holistic nature advocates that at the same time we should continually step back and see the bigger picture.
Today, understanding and awareness of broader systemic factors is not enough. Our interventions must also seek to change those systems in ways that improve lives and create the conditions for innovation towards the greater good. Systemic design can convene constellations of organisations across industries and sectors to collaborate and deliver impact on multiple bottom lines.
Case Study: Safety Net Technologies
SafetyNet Technologies are a UK company who design and build products that help the fishing industry to catch more sustainably. They used a systemic design approach to understand the viability of applying their technology in the Tumbes and Piura regions of Peru. Their strong social mission to support oceans and communities to thrive together demands close collaboration with local systems and a keen contextual understanding of every region they work with.
Their first product, Pisces, is a light-emitting device that attaches to fishing nets and can be programmed to attract or repel different species. It can dramatically reduce unwanted ‘bycatch’ of protected, juvenile or unprofitable species, helping fishers avoid fines and preserving ecosystems. As pressure on our oceans threatens the collapse of fishing stocks and the destruction of marine habitats, products such as Pisces are crucial in making fishing more sustainable.
The Context and Systemic Challenges
The Tumbes coastal region in northwest Peru is environmentally unique. It is home to manta rays, whale sharks and fishing communities undergoing rapid change. Fishing is marching towards industrialisation, but artisanal fishing is still dominant in Tumbes. Globally, artisanal fishing still accounts for 70-80% of all fishing activity, and supports the livelihoods of millions of people and their communities. If we can find ways to make artisanal and subsistence fishing ecologically and economically sustainable, the potential for positive change is vast.
What makes Pisces attractive to industrial fishers in monitored waters was upended in Peru. Catch monitoring and policing was informal, and chances of being fined were low. Individual fishers would find it impossible to justify the cost of Pisces without financial support, and many lacked financial literacy. The team quickly learned from fishers that even the notion of ‘bycatch,’ on which the product offer hangs, was mostly not seen as a problem. What ‘incidental catch’ lands in your net is a bonus, and there are usually buyers for even prohibited species.
The ecosystem was feeling the strain, and had a history of species collapse. Fishers loved their livelihoods, but spoke with sadness about dwindling catches and the precariousness of the job. Fishing families desperately wanted their children to get a better education and vocation, which often meant a loss of future talent to nearby cities. Alternative industries such as ecotourism struggled for momentum, despite the involvement of major NGOs such as the WWF. Efforts by unions, banks, local and national government to support fishers through equipment loans, financial education and registering boats could be undone by fish market price fluctuations, middlemen, corruption and bureaucracy.
The existing SNTech offer would find these conditions too inhospitable. As well as the task of looking inwardly to evolve the Pisces product, service and business model, the team knew that understanding, working with and even changing the systemic forces at work would hold the key to positive change.
Being In, Of and For A Community
As the UK team was grounded due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a field team was created in Peru. SNTech were fortunate to recruit seven experts: Five with backgrounds in marine research, one in documentary filmmaking and one in design thinking and sustainability. The UK team held a series of design methodology 101’s, training up the Peru team to conduct the qualitative research, systems and stakeholder mapping, synthesis and co-creation workshops.
The Peru team provided innate and nuanced understanding of the social, economic, legal, environmental and cultural landscape that would have been invisible to outsiders. The fundamentals of tools and methods were redesigned to suit the culture, ways of working and literacy levels of local participants. Moreover, the project enabled people in, of and for the community to conduct the process. This helped to quickly and fully identify the systems at play, the interrelations between them and the levers to change; opening the door to more positive and sustainable opportunities.
Evolving the Offer, Changing the Context
Traditionally designers have worked ‘inwardly’, redesigning products, services or business models to suit the context. Through interviews, fishing trips, ethnographies and workshops, much was learned about how these could be better adapted to the experiences, expectations and aspirations of different stakeholders. From product R&D to new service models, the SNTech pipeline was filled with possibilities.
Systemic Design looks to intervene outwardly, seeing the external context as malleable and creating new incentives, behaviours and collaborations amongst individuals and organisations. Individually, education and awareness building can bring together fishers to have collective power and the ability to access new technologies and practices. Organisationally, new partnerships and configurations of resources and roles around more meaningful purposes and universal outcomes help overcome barriers to positive change.
The process of creating the right conditions to launch in Tumbes will take time. The voices, experiences, hopes and challenges of the people who participated are invaluable, and the most powerful means of communicating a future vision for the area. Working systemically with the complexities of the natural ecosystem, local economy, national ministries, legislation, education, and culture enables more viable and sustainable outcomes.
A Call for Design to Challenge and Change Systems
Being in and of communities to observe and understand the context for innovation, build agency and effect change amongst the ecosystem of social, environmental and economic forces has never been more necessary. Who is in the room when the projects are first conceived, framed up and sponsored, and who will conduct and participate in the process needs to be representative of the communities and systems we are working within from as early as possible.
When systemic forces make the conditions for innovation inhospitable, everything needs to be brought into question. We must look both inwardly to improve our offer and outwardly to influence the system to innovate. This takes time and care to ensure that as partnerships, cultures and systems develop, unforeseen or negative outcomes are mitigated as much as opportunities are capitalised upon. Introducing new technologies, behaviours, incentives and policies can inadvertently disrupt and change systems for the worse, as well as for the better.
Innovation is the successful application of an idea. No idea exists in a vacuum, unaffected by the context to which it will be introduced. Many good ideas fail without proper understanding of the context – where and how a new product, service, platform, policy or interface will exist. Systemic design seeks to understand and change the context of broader social, economic and environmental drivers and barriers amongst which an idea is to take root. As our challenges become more systemic, so too must design.
The team would like to pay tribute to our team-mate
Rosario “Charo” Escobedo, who sadly passed away in 2021.
Her dedication and spirit will be dearly missed.