Development as improvisation: AAG Session, Abstracts and Speakers

Development as improvisation? Exploring the significance of improvisation in contemporary development contexts

Session Description: Improvisation has become a key theme of contemporary geography, anthropology, development studies, and urban studies. Improvisation is carried out in everyday life, encompassing social, political and material actions (Young & Jeffrey 2012; Jeffrey & Young 2014). It "emerges not necessarily as a sudden change, but as a creative recasting of relations from everyday dwelling" (McFarlane 2011:9). Li (2005: 389) argues that "practical knowledge… is at work everywhere, at all times." Improvisation sees development programmes, their targets and technologies de-shaped and re-shaped by various peoples in ways not imagined or intended by those designing. Such actions are often in the context of economic precariousness, or deployed as strategies within challenging development or economic contexts. They are often celebrated as "people's economy" and "economies of entrepreneurship", or as expressions of "dynamic informality" (Roy, 2011, 2014). In urban informal settlements, in complex and provisional environments, improvisation is again at play (Vasudevan, 2014). In India, shrewd improvisation is expressed in the idea of jugaad. In Zimbabwe, Jones (2010) argues that during recent economic crisis youth entrepreneurs responded through a new language of capitalist endeavor and creative improvisation; described by the term kukiya kiya, this action spoke of making do, of seizing the moment, and of hustle. Other idioms of entrepreneurship and improvisation might include "jeitinho" in Brazil (Duarte, 2006), "dregging" in Sierra Leone (Hoffman, 2008), or the French concept of "bricolage" (Le ´vi-Strauss 1962).
Improvisation is contextual, local, often informal and to be transmitted informally. However, improvisation is not just about poorer people, it is as much about "elite informalities" (A. Roy 2011a). They can often involve systemic risk(s) and disruptive innovation(s), a sign of resources being stretched too far (Birtchnell 2011). They are also non-egalitarian, with those who have the "feel for the game" often better at it (Jeffrey & Young 2014: 189). This may be because improvisations are often based on Scott's (1998: 334) metis - knowledges that are local and contingent - but "not democratically distributed".

Questions that the session would explore (inter alia):
  1. What are the conceptual/theoretical tools that could help us unpack 'improvisation'?
  2. Is improvisation too malleable a term, too vague to be of much conceptual use?
  3. How does improvisation reflect action(s) brought about within contemporary development?
  4. What issues of power and politics does improvisation open up?
  5. Is improvisation always local in scale, to particular places, and of the moment? Or can a wider story of improvisation be told?  
  6. What empirical accounts explore improvisation 'at play', and its significance.

Session 1

Tuesday, 4/21/2015, from 8:00 AM - 9:40 AM in Stetson F, Hyatt, West Tower, Purple Level

Discussant: Stephen Young - University of Wisconsin-Madison

Speaker 1: Jonathan Balls - University of Oxford

Title: Improvisation, Jugaad and the Informal Market for Off-grid Solar Power in Uttar Pradesh, India

Abstract: This paper examines the nature and significance of improvisation through a case study of 'jugaad' practices and products in shops selling off-grid solar power products in rural Uttar Pradesh, North India. Over the previous five years in Uttar Pradesh a largely liberalised and decentralised market for solar products has grown rapidly. For-profit companies and social enterprises populate part of this market offering quality, branded, and serviced products, often at subsidised prices. However, now an informal market characterised by improvisation is also growing fast in the state, often outcompeting formal options. Here, in the practices of shopkeepers, in the combinations of products, components and materials, and in the way people are buying: improvisation, ingenious innovation, adhocism and incrementalism are at play in various ways. In recent years the idea of 'jugaad' has been adopted to think about and to celebrate grassroots innovation and enterprise seen in bottom of the pyramid markets in India, often in de-politicised terms. I argue that evidence from the off-grid solar power market demands a more critical account of jugaad. In informal solar shops innovative enterprise is evident, yet a majority of people are choosing improvised options because they cannot afford or cannot access quality, branded alternatives. Therefore, jugaad and improvisation is often a necessary everyday (second-best) option for individuals seeking to access basic goods and services not provided by the state. This research is based upon ten months of qualitative fieldwork, interviewing and spending time with solar shopkeepers in Uttar Pradesh.


Speaker 2: Jeffrey Masse - University of Washington, Department of Geography

Title: Coping or Culture, or Cultures of Coping? Improvisation, Definition, and Food Security in the Karnali Region, Nepal

Abstract: The Karnali is Nepal's poorest and hungriest region, and scores of government welfare programs and hundreds of NGOs and INGOs operate there. This paper examines the improvisations of Karnali locals and development workers as they negotiate categories given by development discourse. Karnali locals struggle with food access after collapse of traditional trade routes and associated entrepreneurial livelihoods. Locals attend programs including food lines, business trainings, and agriculture extension farm-schools. At each site they must skillfully negotiate program-specific categories of identity— such as deserving-hungry-person, entrepreneur, and farmer — to access resources. Meanwhile, food security monitors must decide whether migration for seasonal trading is 'coping' related to food crisis or if migration is instead seasonal opportunity seeking. Yet NGO workers must themselves maintain their livelihoods by looking out for new contracts and responding to changes in food security paradigms. Thinking of development as a field of improvised definitions helps to understand both the practices through which local people represent themselves and the power-laden processes through which development workers categorize aid recipients. In this light both locals and developers are seen as simultaneously coping, entrepreneurial and dependent. The decision making process that chooses between culture and coping is itself part of a culture of coping. Such relationality, however, poses challenges for liberal conceptions of development assistance that seek to create autonomous subjects. Feminist care ethics, by contrast, understands subjects to be inherently relational. To better theorize the moral stakes of development improvisation, I conclude by discussing ethnographic examples in terms of care ethics.


Speaker 3: Lucas Oesch - University of Manchester

Title: Improvising Urban Development? Jordanian Planning Apparatus in Palestinian Refugee Camps and Informal Settlements

Abstract: This paper shows that 'improvisation' is not only a strategy of the people but of institutions as well. It analyses how the Jordanian State, and its international partners (World Bank, United Nations, NGOs), have to rely on an 'improvised' apparatus of planning in urban Palestinian refugee camps and their informal surroundings in order to achieve physical territorial homogenization without resorting to a formal development plan. The latter would render these spaces too permanent and formal, or in other words not 'exceptional' enough. By reworking Foucault's concept of apparatus (dispositif), this paper argues that the use of this "thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble" (Foucault 1980) of urban planning is thus not completely fortuitous. It can be conceptualized as a strategy of the Jordanian State to manage and ensure the lasting temporariness of camps and informality of settlements, while allowing for a form of urban development. This apparatus has to be understood within an ambiguous governmentality of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, which fluctuates between principles of integration, on the one hand, and differentiation on the other. This improvisation away from conventional urban planning is thus geo-politically driven by considerations related to the status of refugees in the kingdom. Development is characterised by a set of unrelated actions ranging from small-scale projects to broader programs which are implemented by various actors and institutions with little coordination. While most of these actions are formally executed, their combination is 'unplanned', and informal building practices of inhabitants are incorporated in the process as well.

Speaker(s) 4: Kirsten Koop - Grenoble Alpes University; Nicolas Senil - Grenoble Alpes University; Pierre-Antoine Landel - Grenoble Alpes University

Title: The Role of Improvisation within Social Innovation Processes. Insights from Alternative Local Initiatives in Ardèche, France

Abstract: In a context of economic crisis and societal change, 'social innovation' turned out to constitute a key concept in social sciences, allowing to analyze and foster development initiatives aiming at satisfying unmet social needs, in the Global South as well as in the North (Murray et al., 2010; UE, 2013). This relatively new model allows addressing development issues by focusing on local needs, participatory innovation processes and new forms of collaboration. Whatever the strength's of this popular concept are, its weakness is to adequately grasp the characteristics and dimensions of the process of emergence of social innovation (Mulgan, 2006).  'Improvisation', as creative actions shaped by the needs and principles of a social group, appears here to have some explanatory potential. We propose to analyze the process of social innovation launched by alternative movements in 'Ardèche', France, through the lens of 'improvisation'. Based on the results of on an ongoing research project (ANR Trans Med Inn), we will focuses on the assemblage of local (traditional) and external knowledge the actors undertake to innovate in order to meet their alternative principles and values (majorly oriented towards eco-agriculture and social economy). As the dominant regime does provide neither supply nor regulatory frameworks for these types of social innovations, 'improvisation' appears to be a suitable concept to grasps both the creativity and the informality of the actions. Does it help to define these innovations? To understand how they emerge? To grasp their relation with the dominant regime? These are questions we will address.


Session 2 

Tuesday, 4/21/2015, from 10:00 AM - 11:40 AM in Stetson F, Hyatt, West Tower, Purple Level

Discussant: Stephen Young - University of Wisconsin-Madison

Speaker 1: Jon Silver - Durham University

Title: Incremental infrastructures: material improvisation and social collaboration across post-colonial Accra

Abstract: Approaching the informal construction and extension of infrastructures through the terrain of what I term "the incremental" opens up new platforms of analysis for post-colonial urban systems. This refers to ad hoc actions on the part of slum dwellers to connect to energy networks or carve out informal living spaces. I argue that incrementalism is produced and subsequently secured and scaled through material configurations that seek to test and prefigure new forms of infrastructure and accompanying resource flows. I use a case study of energy and housing systems in a low-income neighborhood in Accra to define and examine these incremental infrastructures. I examine shifts in the Accra energy network as urban dwellers rework connections to flows of electricity. I also consider the material adjustment of housing and the role of cooperation in responding to threats of demolition and displacement. Together, incremental infrastructures and the ways that they are constituted articulate a prefigurative politics in which residents seek to generate access to new infrastructural worlds.

Speaker 2: Thomas Birtchnell - Geography and Sustainable Communities, University of Wollongong

Title: 3D Printing in India as an Inclusive Jugaad

Abstract: In this paper I consider the question: does the emergence in India of a technology allowing the production of objects near to or by the user (termed 3D printing) constitute a possible catalyst for an inclusive jugaad? Much of the rhetoric on an innate cultural aptitude in India for a frugal approach to innovation (Hindi: jugaad) spills from the lips of management gurus and globally minded entrepreneurs. In this way jugaad becomes a nation-building project: 'Indovation'. The reality of jugaad is less romantic. The poor in India make do and mend with what they have to hand and repair and reuse what they cannot afford to replace. Global marketeers have tried to spin jugaad to make profit from the Indian bottom of the pyramid's apparent glee for frugal products. A billion new customers beckon we are told. Unfortunately for multi-national corporations and their joint ventures, jugaad is a double-edged sword, as it is unlikely frugal products can compete with frugal practices, which are already ubiquitous. However, reports of the use of 3D printers in India that allow the bottom of the pyramid to produce their own products and replacement parts through recycling waste intimates a very different notion of jugaad as an empowering force for development in India. The presentation reports on the notion of 3D printing for development drawing on case studies from fieldwork.


Speaker 3: Ankit Kumar - University of Durham

Title: The politics of improvisation of micro energy projects in India

Abstract: Jeffrey & Young (2014: 192) connect improvisation - in form of jugaad, a word representing improvisation in India - to "local skills and tacit knowledge". This is similar to James Scott's (1998: 313) "metis" – "practical skills" that "lie(s) in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote". Based on the case of two micro energy projects in India, studied during a 9 month field work, I argue that these projects claim to learn from the ground and build their materials ground up incorporating metis – "local skills and tacit knowledge" - into them. However, learning from the metis and incorporating it in their design they develop standard, replicable models which they apply everywhere. By doing this they convert metis which is "contextual and particular" into techne which is "universal" (Scott 1998: 320). This is followed up with an attempt to standardise people and their mentalities to match the standardisation of the materials. However, people do not always conform to these standardisations. Using their own "capacities of acting and thinking" (Dean 2010: 24) people often improvise to use electricity and its services in ways that are not part of the 'models' of the energy projects. At this point, the energy projects use "disciplinary" and "regulatory" mechanisms to "normate" and "normalise" (Legg 2007: 8) peoples' improvisations seen as a threat to their 'models' that are claimed to have also evolved from improvisations


Speaker(s) 4: Allegra Fonda-Bonardi - MIT, Caroline Howe, MCP - MIT

Title: Improvisation: Tools for resilience and adaptation

Abstract: The practice of theatrical improvisation -- unscripted performance -- activates creativity; generates empathy by taking on various characters and acting as they would, at least for a scene; builds collaboration by setting others up for success in a scene; heightens presence, or the focus on the current moment; suspends judgment of oneself and others' ideas; and strengthens resilience, the ability to respond to sudden changes and unpredictable circumstances. Given that these six skills are also all important in the implementation of development programs and research, we explore the opportunities for organizations, universities, and practitioners to build improvisation into the practice of their teams. Throughout 2014, the authors, then MIT Department of Urban Studies & Planning graduate students, led a series of improvisation workshops with urban planning students and researchers, as well as development practitioners within the university. We designed these workshops to focus on these six skills -- creativity, empathy, presence, suspension of judgment, resilience and collaboration -- based on both of our experience in working at the intersection of improvisation and development in the past. We apply some of the lessons from these workshops to help other practitioners consider building their own practice.


Two further speakers are unable to attend the conference in person, but were selected to be a part of the sessions 

Author: Raihana Ferdous - University of Durham

Title: Improvisation and clash: silent challenge in institutional landscape of rural electrification development programme

Abstract: Improvisation is an everyday occurrence from everyday mundane practices to social, cultural, political, material and even technological. This paper combines two different aspects of improvisation of solar energy network 'technical' and 'systemic landscape' in Bangladesh. Drawing on everyday life solar home system users and business practices of NGOs as solar home system providers this paper explores everyday politics of solar users and business strategies of the fastest growing solar energy programme of the world. This paper argues clash between 'expected need' and 'unfulfilled desire' creates a solution through improvisation. It also challenges popular discourse of 'access to electricity' and 'sustainable development' by presenting limited scope and technical drawback for current solar home system. As improvisation is contextual, often informal and local, improvisation of 'technical' and 'systemic landscape' often lead development programme to alternative path, which may not follow the institutional guidelines.

Author: Ariell Ahearn - University of Oxford

Title: State Enactments and Enacting the State: Devolving Governance in Rural Mongolia

Abstract: In this article, I examine how herder households negotiate new types of public administration interventions by offering ethnographic material on two recent government initiatives in rural Mongolia. The initiatives draw symbolically on a socialist narrative of modernist development and citizenship while forwarding a neoliberal economic discourse based on individual initiative and responsibility, promoting the formalization and commercialization of herder households through self-management frameworks. The analysis explores the local implementation of initiatives to highlight the social and improvisational nature of rural district administration and discusses the extent to which state bureaucratic practices are incorporated in household spaces and economic practices.


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