We’re outsiders working with a real community. That’s a BIG responsibility

I have to confess: back in January, before this course started, I was nervous. We knew very little about Uxuxubí (including how to pronounce it – we now know it’s “oo-shoo-shoo-BEE”), but we did know that we would be the first team to launch Aalto LAB Mexico’s three-year engagement in the village. Our job was to assess the current situation. Years two and three would be for design and implementation. The endgame was to make our work real.

I had never done any sort of development work before, but I knew that working in a real community was a huge responsibility. I feared making the quintessential mistakes of well-intentioned outsiders – misunderstanding the community, imposing a flawed vision, failing to foresee unintended consequences.  

When this course finally began, though, I was relieved to be introduced to the methodology we would be using: human-centered design. Codified in a toolkit by the innovation consultancy IDEO, human-centered design is a suite of techniques that help designers build from the bottom up by digging deep into the target community’s thoughts and feelings, and using the ensuing insights to create solutions.

While we were in Uxuxubí, human-centered design techniques gave us an invaluable glimpse into the minds of Uxuxubí’s residents. Here are just a few of our insights, and the techniques we used to glean them:

Uxuxubí community members are driving the village’s push for expanded ecotourism, but not everyone sees eye-to-eye

Technique: Interviews

During a Skype meeting before the trip, we found out that the sustainable ecotourism push was being driven by Uxuxubí community members. While we were there, though, we realized that not all of the 20 permanent residents see eye to eye. With the help of the Instituto Tecnológico de Cancún students, we interviewed four of the five families that live in the village permanently (the fifth was away while we were there). Through our interviews with the families, we learned that some were more engaged in building the community’s ecotourism than others. We were surprised to find a division – with such a small permanent population, we expected the families to all be equally connected to the community.


Interviewing one of the families of Uxuxubí

The jungle surrounding Uxuxubí is rich with Mayan knowledge, which lives on in community members

Technique: Guided tours

Throughout our time in Uxuxubí, the community members gave us guided tours, both formal or informal. Through these tours, we not only learned about the village’s layout and natural features, but also how much Mayan wisdom lives on. We learned, for example, to always pray to the powerful god Yum Kaax (pronounced “hum KASH”) before stepping into the jungle. And that the poisonous Chechen tree always grows with its arborous antidote, the Chacah. And that if young men aren’t careful near the lagoon’s most prominent tree, they may be seduced away by the mythical beauty Xtabay (pronounced “ish-ta-BAI”). We learned that as with so many other indigenous cultures, though, the active remembrance of Uxuxubí’s Mayan heritage is delicate. It would only take a generation or two to disappear.


Don Pani giving us a tour of the jungle

Uxuxubí’s permanent residents are deeply attuned to the rhythms of the natural environment

Technique: Interactive workshop

During the interactive workshop at the end of our stay, I led an activity to get the community to share what happens in Uxuxubí throughout each month of the year. One of the things that struck me most was the kind of detailed knowledge community members have about their natural environment. The first things they put on the calendar were holidays, which were soon joined by harvest seasons for different fruits. These I expected. But then people began to share things like animal mating seasons, and I was amazed. As a city-dweller, it is hard to imagine being so connected to the natural environment that you can even pick up on animal courtship.   


Compiling Uxuxubí’s key yearly happenings

To build community-led ecotourism, Uxuxubí will need to attract a very specific type of traveler

Technique: Creating insight statements

We had many, many, many conversations throughout the week about what kind of travelers Uxuxubí should try to attract. The community has an explicit vision of building ecotourism and preserving the environment, and we were acutely aware that not all travelers would inherently respect that. To narrow their target audience beyond “tourists,” a loaded word that we unpacked throughout the week, we used a heap of post-it notes to create insight statements. We defined and redefined different types of tourism and related terms: ecotourism, adventure tourism, explorer, etc. We’re still having these conversations, but one of the key takeaways of our discussions so far is that intention is key. We think that Uxuxubí would be best served by travelers who have a sincere interest in learning about and connecting with the village and the surrounding nature. Stereotypical Cancún spring breakers? Maybe not so much…


Post-it notes helped us organize the troves of information we got each day



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About Lawrence

A Ghanaian international currently studying a master degree in Geoinformatics at Aalto University. Strong interest in GIS and Geoinformation technologies. Accepts the challenge of working on practical problems to develop myself, learn new things and try to have fun while doing it :). Positive attitude and good sense of humor.

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