Discovering, unlearning and relearning the thinking and doing

During the beginning of the summer I participated in the Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis course, taught at Department of Computer Science at Aalto University. In this blog post I will reflect on the lessons learned during these weeks, and the different topics I have discussed in my earlier blog posts, on lectures and through workshops. Finally, I will share some thoughts on my on going thesis process. Overall, it has been a very thought-provoking and interesting course, with lots of constructive discussions. I especially liked the fact that there were students representing all levels, from bachelors to phd as well as students from different disciplines and backgrounds. This always contributes with perspectives we so much need in such a topic like crisis. Also the platforms used, such as this blog where we have published our assignments as well as the Miro board  where we have brainstormed and worked together simultaneously, has been very helpful and inspiring. 

My first tangible connection to crisis (beyond my personal experiences) was in Spring 2018 when I visited Nepal together with a student team from Aalto University. I participated then in the Sustainable Global Technologies Studio course offered at the Department of Built Environment and spent 5 months unpacking my assumptions, biases and prejudice towards people living and experiencing crisis. It was therefore natural, to connect what I learned in the first lectures of the Human-Centred Research and Design with my experience in Nepal.

I was reminded that there is a difference between a hazard (or crisis) and a disaster, disaster being the consequence of poor response to a hazard (Peters, n.d.) and that local people are often the first responders when a hazard hits (Korhonen, 2020). Therefore, the capabilities and vulnerabilities of a local community, is crucial in dealing with crisis (Peters, n.d.). Still, when the international community comes in to support the response to a crisis, it often fails due to communicative issues and lack of understanding of the context (Unnikrishnan, 2015).

Communication is a topic that we understood was lacking also through our background research for the final study (Dahm et al., 2018) we did for the Nepal project, and therefore a topic we decided to dig deeper in. We found out through interviews with local lay people and organisations, that a two-way, inclusive and participatory interaction in the post-disaster phase was crucial to enable local ownership and empowerment in projects. We realised also through our project, that we could have never gotten all the necessary information we received during our two week field trip, if it would not have been for the local Nepali students that we collaborated with throughout the project. They were our guides to the society we observed, and I learned so much just by observing the dynamics between our peer-students and the local lay people, where already power dynamics could be found due to the caste-system and class divide in Nepal. This experience of layers of communication and collaboration mixed with power relations and forced inequalities triggered something in me that has followed since, and given me a critical lens towards international development.

Village of Dhungentar in Nepal. © 2018 Martina Dahm

During our first lecture Nitin Sawhney (2020) talked about how there are politics and social engagement in the real world, and how important it is to recognise the existing power dynamics and privileges to foster inclusivity and participation and enable human-centred approaches that can respond to local needs. Also in one of our readings, the importance of asking “[w]hose future is made and how…” (Light et al., 2017, p. 729) discussed this same value of recognising who gets to decide, and for whom. One of my co-students, Floris (van der Marel, 2020b) wrote an excellent thought-provoking blog post on why it should rather be humanity-centred than human-centred design. He wrote how crisis can also be seen as an opportunity for societal change, rather than it being purely a tragedy. He referred to the on going COVID-19 crisis as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, and stated that the disruption in our everyday lives has already revealed much of how unequal the society is today, and that this could be the opportunity for large systemic change towards a more humane and equal reality.

I found the blog post so interesting that I had to comment on it, and we had a short discussion with Floris on how we as designers can approach these problematic systems we are living in to reveal and work against contributing even more to them, being part of changing the systems and current realities. Together we listed some tools that might help us on the way, such as: acknowledging ones own biases and assumptions, daily moments of reflection, engaging with people who are less privileged than oneself, listen genuinely, challenge ones own beliefs without becoming defensive, understand why people think/feel/do what they think/feel/do, reflecting on the education we are given and where the knowledge comes from and reading articles from authors that are coming from other realities than ourselves. I also referred to a podcast (Harris, n.d.) I had recently listened to where Sam Harris shared his view on the Black Lives Matter movement and the killing of black people by police in the US. Harris mentions the importance of dialogue (communication) especially in crisis situations where a lot of people react with their emotions rather than their rational.

As we discussed the on-going crises (COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter) during our lectures and especially the popular contact tracing as a response to COVID-19, I decided to take a look at the contact tracing technologies and their possibilities and challenges. My second blog post was therefore a commentary on how contact tracing might change the behaviour in people. Contact tracing is used to trace the path of the virus, to discover the people who are infected and spreading it, as well as the people who has gotten exposed (and possibly infected as well) by the virus. Even though the existing contact tracing applications has been recognised to enable fast response to COVID-19, some of them has also revealed serious legal and privacy issues (Berke & Larson, 2020).

One of our guest lectures, Janne Lindqvist (2020) also pointed out the importance for professionals developing and building technical solutions (such as contact tracing apps) to sometimes question whether a technology ought to be created or not, rather than just respond to client’s demands. Especially in countries where privacy is a big concern, several developers have urged the tech community to refuse creating technology that break the privacy concerns of lay people. I found it an important point to remind us that designers and developers are responsible of what they create, and we should as professionals ask whether it is something that should be created at all or not. Related to the contact tracing, I reflected in my blog post on how the use of such an application could influence human behaviour and create unnecessary stigma and shame in people who are infected and contribute to a society where people would feel suspicious towards each other and how this could change the power and trust in societies. Tiina Tuulos, another co-student, commented on the blog post (Dahm, 2020b) and shared the concern of the COVID-19 changing our behaviour to become more alienated towards each other. We discussed the opportunity of creating more solidarity and rebuild trust in our societies through human-centred design.

On the 26th June we had our first virtual workshop of the course (Sawhney & Ylirisku, 2020), and it was a very nice experience of co-creation and discussion. We discussed through Zoom and Miro contact tracing, humanitarian operations and personal healthcare which were themes that had emerged in earlier lectures and readings. I became part of a team working on a board focusing on human-centred research and design for agency and empowerment, as a design direction. We discussed broadly during the workshop the necessity to be able to see things from other perspectives, and talked about how development for example is still very coloured by white supremacy (Anonymous, 2020) and to some extent is a continuum of colonialism, which required some of us (as white designers) to look critically at our own thinking and doing. In the board (picture below) we added alternative ways of thinking, such as Ubuntu (Ogude, 2019) and indigenous knowledge. As designers we experienced that there is a need to first deconstruct our own understanding, thinking and doing, before looking at a context and then try to understand the core problems. I went a step further asking whether we should design solutions ourselves, or enable for someone else to design a solution, or be involved at all. During the workshop we also discussed how technology can sometimes be the enabler, but also the disabler of human activity. In our board we have thoughts on agency of data, participatory approaches and ideas on empowering users by also giving them autonomy.

Human-centred research and design for agency and empowerment on Miro.

I wrote a blog post (Dahm, 2020a) sharing my own thoughts of the workshop and had a good discussion with course professor Nitin Sawhney and co-student Henriette Friis, who commented on it. Henriette mentioned how she experiences curiosity and self-exposure to be important tools in unpacking our learnings and doings, which I found very true. We opened up the discussion on decolonising design, that is something we both came across during the Design & Culture course taught at the Department of Design at Aalto University. With Henriette we also discussed the power of language and how something like the word “aid” can have a connotation on a passive receiver of power as well as someone granting that power. She gave the great examples of “giving people a voice” and “seat at the table” again indicating and assuming that there is ownership of the voice and the table. With Nitin we unwrapped the importance of sometimes enabling the solution-making and decision-making for others, through facilitation or some other method where the designer has a less visible role in the process.

All these exchanges of thought with my co-students, the professors and guest lecturers have contributed in developing my thoughts further on aid, crisis and development, which are main areas of interest to me as I am not only a master’s student at Aalto University but also a professional who is working in the development field. Since I have recently also (re)started to work on my master’s thesis, I decided to focus in the last assignments on my thesis topics, that are related to development and crisis. In my third assignment I therefore mapped out (below) the main topics of my thesis. I am interested to look at foreign aid in Finland, especially focusing on aid from non-Western countries (countries which are not founded on Western ideas, assumptions and ideologies but represent something else than what North America or West of Europe does in terms of politics and culture). As some of my readings have showed, there are a lot of issues in development aid where actors of power manage crisis situation from a top-down approach, pushing their own interests and agendas in front of the need of aid in a local context. This same approach is also a strategy to keep the power in the hands of mostly Western actors and it therefore also perpetuates the already mentioned white supremacy and colonialism (Chishti, 2016; Hickel, 2017). Therefore, I am curious in my thesis to turn things upside down and look at aid from another angle, hopefully to find new perspectives and understandings that could help to break the traditional aid discourse that has been proven to be so harmful (Hickel, 2020) to local contexts beyond the realities of “the West”. 

Initial mapping of the thesis topics on Miro.

As an initial thing, I have to touch upon the problematics of language. I am aware that there are several “Western realities” as there are several realities also beyond what is “West” or “Western”, and part of the job of the thesis is to help me untangle the difficult terminology of these things and discuss the power of language that was something that came along from discussions on this course. My hypothesis is that language is partly to be blamed for hindering the aid discourse to change and I hope to find existing examples of a more positive, empowering and enabling language in development cooperation or even aid. Such dichotomies as the “Global North” and “Global South” as well as “developed country” and “developing country” are too simplistic terms to give a realistic view of the countries’ statuses in the world. These terms also fall into the dualism or either-or thinking, typical of white supremacy culture (Jones & Okun, 2001). Development per se is also a difficult word, because it might mean different things for different people, but for now it seems to mean “progress” and progress in terms of industrialising and modernising nations to a free market economy to follow in the footsteps of (again another difficult categorisation) “the West”. This, even though industrialisation, globalisation and the free market economy (founded on Western ideology) has been proven extremely harmful to the environment through the extraction of natural resources beyond the limits of our planet Earth. 

Meanwhile tackling the language challenge, my main scope is to look at non-Western aid during crisis in Finland. Have Finland received or is the country receiving non-Western aid in some form? What kind of aid? Why? How does that look in practice? What roles do different stakeholders in crisis (both local and foreign) have in the aid process? What kind of power relations might there be? On who’s terms is the aid organised? These are my initial research questions and with these I aim to get an understanding of potential foreign aid in the Finnish crisis management context. I am curious to understand the mindsets, attitudes, intentions and behaviours behind the potential collaboration. Are there traces of white supremacy to be found in these or is there a totally different approach to aid when the receiving country is a Western country?

My whole approach and main purpose of the thesis is to deconstruct my own thinking and doing, and hopefully through a self-reflective and self-critical viewpoint find new ways of thinking and doing that can support me as a professional in the development field to think and act from a deeper well of wisdom than now. I am aware that my topics are large and complex, and that it might take me my whole lifetime to discover how I can work on more equal and fair grounds in development without feeding existing harmful structures of supremacy and colonialism, but consciously and actively work to break these down. The thesis is therefore an attempt to break down my own status as a white European, to discover my assumptions, biases and prejudice towards the “unknown” or unfamiliar and try to shift perspectives by embracing ways of thinking and doing that I am not familiar with. These could be methodologies that are not very common or recognised in Western practices, such as indigenous knowledge, feminist thinking or decolonising practices. Decolonising research means among other things, not to objectify the persons who are researched and observed, but recognise their value as knowers, theorists and communicator (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2017). One important aspect of the thesis is to make it ethical and accountable. Ethical in the sense of being transparent in my processes (meanwhile respecting privacy of people) and only including people who want to be included. Accountable in the sense of making the outcome of my thesis accessible to all persons who has been involved in the process. 

I am aware, that one can probably never step completely out of her background, upbringing or skin colour for that matter, but humans have shown throughout the history an incredible capacity to adapt and change their ways of living, and therefore I believe it is possible to also unlearn and relearn throughout ones life. As the process and my personal growth is key in the thesis process, I have pictured the “Purpose of the process” in the middle of the map below, that is an elaboration on the thesis topics from the earlier map.

Rethinking foreign aid on Miro.

As a designer I also need to unpack my design and research learnings and understand to embrace less popular or non-Western approaches in these fields that can support the process of the thesis. Decolonising design has been a very helpful tool to unpack a lot of design assumptions. As an example, Tristan Schultz (et al. 2018) speaks about Auntie Mary Graham, a Koombumerri Aboriginal Elder, who declares that for her there is no equivalent to the Cartesian “I think therefore I am” but that if she would have to translate it into her own way of thinking it would be “I am located, therefore I am.”. Schultz brings this example as an idea of how there are multiple places and therefore multiple laws, logics and truths, which makes dualism impossible. Most importantly all these perspectives and truths are valid and reasonable although they do not align with Cartesian or Western ways of thinking and being . Decolonising is about recognising and appreciating these multitudes of being. Arturo Escobar (2018) writes similarly about ontological design as an understanding of the pluriverse, a world of plural narratives, practices and knowledge that can be created through design to transform from the one-world vision of a modernist, patriarchic society.

The thesis process has been a long one, evolving initially from my experiences in Nepal and other unfamiliar realities. In these unfamiliar realities I have learned through my mistakes to genuinely listen, communicate and collaborate with many unfamiliar faces that has become familiar and later also friends. Without these encounters that I have had, I don’t think I would be looking into the difficult topics of power relations, supremacy and aid in crisis contexts. But since I have met these faces, and become friends with them, I also recognise (although I can never fully understand) the pain, misery and struggle it can cause to be born in a position that hinders you from coming to your full potential. As a privileged person I know that I need to use the power I have (and that I was born with) to speak up with my friends, familiar and unfamiliar faces to share those alternative narratives and truths there are. I also hope to look back at the thesis process in a year or so, and be able to see how my capacity to understand complexities has evolved, and maybe I have found a few more “tools” to better tackle inequalities that I face.


Anonymous. (2020, June 15). The aid sector must do more to tackle its white supremacy problem. The Guardian

Berke, A., & Larson, K. (2020). Contact Tracing Technologies: Methods and trade-offs. City Science group.

Chishti, M. (2016, March 3). Foreign Aid: Are we really helping others or just ourselves? | Maliha Chishti | TEDxUTSC

Dahm, M. (2020a, June 29). Human-centred(?) research and design for agency and empowerment. Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis.

Dahm, M. (2020b, June 17). How does contact tracing of COVID-19 influence human behaviour? Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis.

Dahm, M., Herva, E., Puikkonen, L., Wittka, M., & Yoshizumi, S. (2018). Project Nepali: A Study on Relations between Communication Means and Knowledge Adoption of Sustainable Recovery Solutions in Nepal. (p. 75). Aalto University.

Escobar, A. (2018). Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Duke University Press.

Harris, S. (n.d.). Making Sense with Sam Harris #207 – Can We Pull Back From The Brink? (June 12, 2020). Retrieved 16 July 2020, from

Hickel, J. (2020, January 24). Here’s Why Foreign Aid Is a Scam | Doha Debates.

Hickel, J. (2017, January 14). Aid in reverse: How poor countries develop rich countries | Jason Hickel. The Guardian.


Korhonen, M. (2020, June 4). Real-World Challenges of Crisis and Disaster Management

Light, A., Shklovski, I., & Powell, A. (2017). Design for Existential Crisis. Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI EA ’17, 722–734.

Lindqvist, J. (2020, June 16). On Security, Privacy and Contact Tracing

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. (2017, September 26). Decolonising research methodology must include undoing its dirty history. The Conversation.

Ogude, J. (2019, June 21). I Am Because You Are: An interview with James Ogude | Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes [Interview].

Peters, K. (n.d.). Podcast series: When disasters and conflict collide. ODI. Retrieved 6 June 2020, from

Sawhney, N., & Ylirisku, S. (2020, June 26). Rethinking Critical Crisis Themes and Design Directions: Workshop Outcomes.

Sawhney, N. (2020, June 2). Introduction to Human-Centred Research & Design in Crisis

Unnikrishnan, S. (2015, September 4). We need to turn our response to crisis inside out. TED Institute.

van der Marel, F. (2020a, June 21). Tracing for the people. Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis.

van der Marel, F. (2020b, June 8). We need Humanity-Centred Research and Design in Crisis. Human-Centred Research and Design in Crisis.


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