We are living in a climate-variable world, in which seasons are less stable and natural disasters are rising in frequency. No one experiences this instability more acutely than the smallholder cultivators who produce 70 percent of the world’s food. Take Colombian onion farmer Doña Gilma: She has been working the land for 32 years, but her formula of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and raw chicken manure is now failing. She can connect her smaller harvests and rotting onion roots to the longer, hotter summers and unseasonal rainfall. But she has more questions than answers. How much fertilizer is too much fertilizer? Is more irrigation always better? Would composting really boost yields?
As the natural world’s fluctuations become the norm, agricultural decision makers can no longer rely on generationally passed-down knowledge. In this sense, climate change is also an “ambiguity problem” experienced by frontline communities as an impasse: what you know no longer works. The speed and scale at which these transformations are taking place demand dynamic responses at the individual level, or what’s sometimes called “autonomous adaptation.”
Enter design thinking, an approach to building solutions with, and for communities closest to the challenge in hand.
A recent project between Rare and Stanford University’s d.school used design principles to tackle the high-stakes ambiguity problem faced by Colombian onion farmers: how much chemical input is enough for onions to prosper without degrading already overtreated soil? This is but one instance of an ambiguity problem in one corner of the world. However, the issue remains of how we address ambiguity problems, which threaten timely climate adaption in the planet’s most vulnerable places. Our hope is for more and more changemakers to consider a design thinking lens in situations where “what you know no longer works.”
Read the full article about design thinking and climate ambiguity by Sarah Stein Greenberg and Madhuri Karak at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
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