My journey: Social innovation – first steps

Author : Ana Simar 

Agua pa' Toma!

Participatory design project - Colombia 2009

When I finished my studies in industrial design, I had mixed feelings about the relationship we humans create with the world of objects and our consumption practices. However, I gradually became interested in the complex problems of my immediate environment and the creative processes that contribute to their resolution.

I was born in Cali, Colombia, a southwest city close to the Pacific coast. As a Cali girl, I learned to swim in the sea of Ladrilleros and La Barra; two small villages located one hour by boat from Buenaventura, the largest port in Colombia. Every year, during my childhood and adolescence, I visit this wonderful place for holidays with my family and later with my friends. I grew up as a fan of the rainforest and deeply admired the simple life nourished by the essentials, the sun and the sea.

Ladrilleros/La Barra, Buenaventura, Colombia.

In 2009, looking for a topic for my dissertation, I wanted to approach the communities of Ladrilleros and La Barra to explore, with them, the problems that I could help solve with my new design skills.

After several interviews and surveys, I observed the problem of discontinuity in access to drinking water. In this region, there is no water treatment plant. As a result, water consumption is possible only by rain, but every year, between December and March, the drought period arrives, considerably limiting its availability.

In the Colombian Pacific, until 2009, 81% of the population had no access to regular drinking water.

Thus was born “Agua pa’ Toma”, a participatory design process with the community of La Barra, Buenaventura, to create a home water purification system that could be employed mainly during the drought period. The project aimed to carry out a pilot test.

During one year, going back and forth between Bogota and the Pacific and surrounded by an extraordinary group of experts in diverse fields (environmental management, sanitary engineering, theatre), we facilitated five sessions on the co-creation process. For this, we used as a frame of reference the method proposed by Victor Papanek in his book “Design for the real world” and the analysis of cognitive styles in Colombia by HEDERICH Martínez, Christian and CAMARGO, Angela, in “Cognitive styles in Colombia”.

These two elements: the co-design methodology and the cognitive styles of the region, allowed me to design playful sessions and the theoretical support specifically adapted to the local working group.

A brief description of the participatory process

Session 0 - March 2009 :

Discovering the problem. Approach to the formulation of project variables, analysis of the environment and elements of the problem.

Tools: interviews, surveys, field observations.

Design project development: research on technical processes for home water purification adapted to the region. Theoretical framework and statistical analysis on the water problem in the Colombian Pacific region. Study of cognitive styles in the area. Design of tools for the dissemination of concepts.

Session 0 - March 2009 :

Discovering the problem. Approach to the formulation of project variables, analysis of the environment and elements of the problem.

Tools: interviews, surveys, field observations.

Design project development: research on technical processes for home water purification adapted to the region. Theoretical framework and statistical analysis on the water problem in the Colombian Pacific region. Study of cognitive styles in the area. Design of tools for the dissemination of concepts.

Session 1 - June 2009 :

Socialising the design profession and its creative process, forming the work team, and proposing a schedule of activities. Collecting water samples from different sources (nearby rivers, groundwater, rain).

Tools: briefing, visual communication (infographics), analogue calendars.

Design project development: design of a dynamic for learning domestic processes for water purification and understanding technical principles. Design and production of ludic tools (experimental model games). Design and production of theoretical support material (manuals). Physico-chemical analysis of local water samples.

Session 2 - September 2009 :

Presentation of possible technical processes for domestic water purification in the region and selecting alternative water sources available during the drought period. Definition of specific objectives.

Tools: briefing session, visual communication (infographics), clue games, interaction games with models representing water purification processes (experimental game models), and booster cards to reinforce theoretical content.

Design project development: an initial approach to the project, developing a basic proposal for discussion and evaluation with the local working group. Design and manufacture of a seawater desalination device to facilitate the approach to the technique, which is still unknown to the community. Design and construction of a game to remind people of technical concepts.

Session 2 - September 2009 :

Presentation of possible technical processes for domestic water purification in the region and selecting alternative water sources available during the drought period. Definition of specific objectives.

Tools: briefing session, visual communication (infographics), clue games, interaction games with models representing water purification processes (experimental game models), and booster cards to reinforce theoretical content.

Design project development: an initial approach to the project, developing a basic proposal for discussion and evaluation with the local working group. Design and manufacture of a seawater desalination device to facilitate the approach to the technique, which is still unknown to the community. Design and construction of a game to remind people of technical concept.

Session 3 - October 2009 :

Workshop on seawater desalination. Strengthening of technical concepts of domestic water purification. Co-design of the system for the water extraction, purification and dosing phases.

Tools: design sketches, seawater desalination device, games and didactic material to recall technical concepts.

Design project development: design of system details, generation of technical drawings and planning of the production process. Prefabrication of parts of the system.

Session 4 - November 2009 :

Manufacturing, assembling and testing the system. Collecting samples of water treated by the designed system. Adaptation of the design based on field experience.

Tools: prefabricated parts for testing (hydraulic pump and containers). Materials from the region (wood and usual tools).

Design project development: adjustment of technical drawings. Study of the continuity of the project. Preparation of the process closure and celebration.

Session 4 - November 2009 :

Manufacturing, assembling and testing the system. Collecting samples of water treated by the designed system. Adaptation of the design based on field experience.

Tools: prefabricated parts for testing (hydraulic pump and containers). Materials from the region (wood and usual tools).

Design project development: adjustment of technical drawings. Study of the continuity of the project. Preparation of the process closure and celebration.

Closing meeting - December 2009 .

Celebration, thanks and delivery of educational materials to the local school.

What happened next?

For various reasons, including the absence of security in the region, the desire to live in a less violent environment and the desire to discover my Belgian identity (my father is Belgian), I decided to migrate from Colombia to Belgium in 2010.

The pilot project was installed and remained operational for several months. In 2014, the settlement of La Barra was swept away by a sudden rise in the sea level, taking all the houses and infrastructure with it – the fault of global warming? today La Barra is about two or three kilometres away from where it once was. https://www.elpais.com.co/valle/fuerte-oleaje-arraso-con-tres-metros-de-playa-en-la-barra-buenaventura.html 

The project “Agua pa’ Toma” was engraved in the memory of each participant as a reminder of the time when the village was in its original territory.

Since then, three very valuable conclusions have followed me in terms of methodology, participatory process and systems design:

Iteration and Recurrence

Every participatory project must involve monitoring processes, feedback stages, and design/process adjustments.

In this case (Agua pa’ Toma), the lack of continuity through a monitoring process blocked the scalability of the project.

Accountability and roles

Leadership is crucial to ensure trust, awareness and ownership of participatory community initiatives.
This project was left behind when I decided to emigrate from Colombia. Therefore, the autonomy of the process was not complete. Likewise, the person responsible for where we installed the pilot system decided to leave the country to look for better opportunities abroad.

Climate change analysis

Nowadays, any responsible participatory project must include variables linked to climate change and environmental impact.
During the research and contextual inquiry for this project, we did not think about the possibility of having such a sea level rise. Nevertheless, this natural phenomenon determined the end of the system’s life cycle.

Throughout this project, I discovered the path I wanted to follow: Social Innovation and Participatory Design.

Throughout this project, I discovered the path I wanted to follow: Social Innovation and Participatory Design.

It is clear to me that everyone can create. Moreover, I believe that learning from the creative process is an empowering force for communities, whether rural, civic, public or private.

I believe that the designer’s role today, in addition to conceiving responsible objects, should be seen as strategic in mediating and facilitating participatory creative processes and developing collective intelligence. Design today must actively contribute to disseminating ways of thinking and acting that promote collaborative innovation with a significant impact.

After twelve years in Belgium, I returned to La Barra in 2022 to meet the team again with nostalgia and joy, hoping to continue learning about their creative practices.

I sincerely hope to be able to explore together again the complex issues that still affect their community today and to contribute to possible solutions.

La Barra, Buenaventura. Colombie 2022

Sincere thanks to all who participated in this beautiful experience: Ola, Luz Dary, Natalia, Alexandra, Sixto, Miguel, Alex, William, Beto, Camilo, Estefania, Jorge, Diego, Yuliana.

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