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.

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



Workshop with the community

Back in Finland before our trip, we started to talk about having a workshop with the community members while in Uxuxubí. Since we didn’t really know how the community was organized, we waited to plan it there and then. During the last weeks before the field trip, we were able to at least prepare what we wanted to get out of a possible workshop, who we thought could participate and what material we could need.

The result was this mindmap:


Mindmap for the workshop. Prepared before the field trip

During our stay in Uxuxubí, we started to talk about having a presentation for them instead, during our last day. The presentation would tell them what we had been up to during our week there and share our observations and findings. When we began to actually plan the presentation, it developed to a half presentation, half workshop kind of event. We really wanted to hear the community members’ opinions and still get some more information while presenting what we had done so far.


Preparing for the workshop


Lawrence drawing the map

Answers to the questions we had thought of in Finland (the mindmap) had actually come up already during the week, so in the workshop we could go further to get even more information e.g. about their hopes for the future. Keeping it simple was important, as we had decided to keep the whole community together for the workshop without dividing into smaller groups. With around 20 people, it was possible to keep the groups as a whole, which was nice.


Me organizing insights


Working on the business model canvas for the community, which we in the end decided to not include in the workshop because we felt it would be too complicated and time consuming.

It was fun to prepare a workshop completely by hand. Our tools were paper and pens, no PowerPoints or Prezzies here. I just wish I would be better at drawing, as it would have been nice to draw instead of having to write everything. But I did my best to at least do some illustrations, although my effort to draw a crocodile mainly created laughter! It didn’t make it to the presentation…


Preparing for the workshop

We couldn’t really know who would actually show up for our small event since we didn’t personally invite everyone. We just hoped for the best. I was so happy to see that almost every one of the inhabitants came, and on time. Also some community members who don’t live in Uxuxubí permanently were there.


Happy that so many wanted to participate

We began our workshop by asking everyone to mark their favorite place on the map that Lawrence had drawn. This gave such a great start to the whole workshop, as everyone understood from the beginning that this will be an interactive workshop, not a traditional presentation from our side.


Almost all of the kids liked the lagoon best since they can swim and hang out with their friends there

After this ice-breaker the rest of the presentation went on quite smoothly:


Aaron presenting the current electrical infrastructure as well as ideas for the future by utilizing the map and post-its


Carolina presenting the characteristics making Uxuxubí a special place


We wanted to understand the different characteristics of each month in Uxuxubí and what community members find important throughout the year. To help out with her activity, Liz invited two helpers, Ramoncito and Federico, to write out important characteristics of every month with the help of the rest of the community. It became a bit chaotic since everyone was so enthusiastic, but with some guidance we got the specific information we were after.


Me talking about recycling and waste management. Proud that I made it through in Spanish and everyone at least seemed to understand me.


We shared some of the most important insights from the week.


We asked everyone to say how they would like to see Uxuxubí in the future. This time Aaron worked as the secretary so he could write it word by word in Spanish.



We ended the workshop by hanging up empty skill cards for every adult in the village. The idea came from the skill cards we hade made within our team. We asked the community members to write down skills for each other. Aaron and Carolina helped out, as not everyone can write, something worth remembering when organizing workshops.


At the same time, we asked volunteers to participate in a small video. We asked them to continue the sentence “Uxuxubí is…” and tell their thoughts about Uxuxubí.


To thank everyone for their kindness and for happily answering all our questions throughout the week, we wanted to give them some gifts from Finland. Here is me telling something about Moomin in Spanish. A big thanks to Moomin Characters for sponsoring us!

– Jennifer

The Language Barrier

There is a saying: If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head but if you talk to him in his own language, it goes to his heart. I could really relate to this saying from the first day we arrived in the Uxuxubí community. We were greeted with smiles and hugs by the locals but before I realized, every member of my team was interacting with them in Spanish and I couldn’t say a word. Even though we knew our Mexican partners would be helping us with translations when interacting with the locals, it was right there that I sensed that my inability to communicate directly with them would cause problems for me in the flow of information. My fear of this language barrier became even more apparent in the following days when we had gotten very acquainted with the locals and I was very handicapped in any direct conversations. The people are super friendly and anytime I met them alone, they wanted to talk to me like they were able to interact with my other colleagues but I could only resort to smiles and hand gestures. Even though this was a challenge at times, it was also fun and a unique experience knowing that I could carry a message across without being able to speak so much of spanish.

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First day meeting with the teachers at the local school

The Human Centered Design approach was the central method of gathering information in this project and the ability to interact directly with the locals through interviews and conversations is one of the effective methods of getting the needed information. Most Often planned interviews, where someone is translating questions for locals, only result in limited information relating to only the questions asked, but unplanned direct conversations which occur through everyday interactions always reveal a lot of information about the community and the people and this was the case for most of my colleagues who could understand the Spanish language to some degree.


Jennifer and Liz interacting with the locals after a community workshop

Throughout our stay in the community, my colleagues had been helpful in translations whenever possible but it was during our last workshop with the community that I really felt the challenge in the language barrier. Whiles my colleague was trying his best to translate for me, there was too much flow of information from the very much engaged locals and I knew I was missing out on a lot of the ideas and comments that were being shared. As I stood there throughout the workshop, I realized that there are some things that simply can’t be translated to feel the same way and as beautiful as it is in the original language. It is indeed true that the conquest of learning is achieved through the knowledge of languages as the saying goes.


A community member giving his thoughts about the community and his favorite places


Interacting with the community during a workshop

At the end of our week stay in the Uxuxubí community, my colleagues and I had really formed a great bond with the locals, so much so that we felt part of them. This was a unique experience for all of us and one that will be part of us for a long time. As we sat in our van and waved our goodbyes to the beautiful people of Uxuxubí, I couldn’t help but reel on all the moments I could have bonded with these people even more on personal level but couldn’t because of the challenge of the language barrier. Indeed a smile takes you far but not all the way.


Lawrence with Don Manuel’s (a hard working member of the community) family


– Lawrence

Mapping the Uxuxubi Community

“If rural communities don’t take advantage of their location, somebody else will.” – Don Pani

One of the major activities we planned to do during our field visit to Uxuxubí was to create a map detailing the layout of the existing infrastructure and the locations of the tourism sites in the community. We found this an important activity to do when, during our initial search of background information about the community, we discovered maps of the area are not existent and that a simple Google search of the community only shows where it is located in the Quintana Roo region and that no further information about what actually exists there.


Location of Uxuxubi on Google Map

Creating a map of the community is an integral part of the diagnosis phase of this project, as it will provide a base for the spatial planning of the community, the proper locations of infrastructural development for tourism as well as planning locations of different business structures. Choosing the right locations is essential to ensure that tourism facilities will be sustainable and help realize the community’s vision of an eco-friendly environment.


Lawrence making a sketch of the layout of the community

The process of mapping the community was quite intriguing, fun and challenging at times. We did the whole mapping with a Garmin 62s handheld GPS with an accuracy of < 5m, which was suitable for the purpose of this project. The GPS was used to mark corners of buildings to pick their structures as well as to map our walking routes as we were being given a tour of the surrounding jungle. The road network in the community is nicely paved and so it wasn’t difficult mapping it. The buildings in the community are sparsely located, and we sometimes had to walk long distances into the jungle to locate other tourism sites, which somehow proved a bit of a challenging part of the mapping process but also added to the experience and adventurous nature of Uxuxubí. During the mapping we could see the organic development the village has gone through.


Mapping the features of Uxuxubi during a guided tour of the Jungle


Marking the position of one of the boundary points in Uxuxubi

At the end of our one week stay in Uxuxubí, we had been able to map out all the places we had visited and created a prototype of how the place looks. We then asked the locals to indicate their favorite places on the map during a workshop with the community. Most of the children liked the lagoon best, as they loved to swim there. Others preferred to watch the crocodiles or trek to the Cenote Balam for a bath.   


Ramon marking his favorite spot on the map during a workshop with the community

Now that we’re back in Finland, we’ll be using our GPS data to make a digital version of the Uxuxubí map.


Values of the Uxuxubí community

“Uxuxubí is like a baby, and we can model its growth.” –Don Miguel Pani, Uxuxubí community leader

When we started to work on this project in January, we had no idea about the community’s values. During the first weeks in class, we discussed the importance of sustainability in our projects, and we realized that we didn’t really know anything about what the inhabitants in Uxuxubí thought about sustainability issues. We realized that we may need to be prepared to start from nothing. Are they at all interested in environmental sustainability and the nature surrounding them? What is their relation to money and what kind of economic arrangements do they have within the community? How do they value their cultural and social life? How is the community organised, do they have a leader? These were some questions that were raised during the first weeks.


Lawrence during the project clinic in Finland in the end of February, presenting what we knew back then

Later, during our Skype sessions to Mexico, where in addition to the ITC team the leader of the community Don Pani was also present, we already found out that a) the community has a leader and b) the community is interested in environmental issues as well as in gaining more income. This was reassuring, as now we probably wouldn’t have to begin with convincing them about the importance of sustainability.

When we arrived in Uxuxubí, one of the first things we saw was this huge sign about their vision and mision.


Sign hanging in the big event Palapa telling about the history of Uxuxubí as well as their vision and mission

Their vision, according to the sign, is to conserve a place where nature and humans can coexist in harmony with the environment that surrounds them, ensuring the wellbeing of their families through sustainable living.

Their mission is to offer a service providing activities with direct contact to nature for adventure lovers in a thrilling and ecological environment. It is also to protect and restore the Mayan jungle of Quintana Roo through programs with NGOs, public institutions and private business as well as to generate benefits for their community by diversifying their eco-touristic activities and farming.

This is something the community has agreed on to work towards and it was impressive to see it written down. It is not easy to put your vision and mission into words. The fact that the banner is located in a very central place in the village also reveals the importance of this message.


Aaron, Don Pani and Anni picking up trash

Don Pani kept emphasizing the importance of sustainability from the first time we met him in Cancún. In the picture above, you can see a bag full of trash that we were picking up during a walk in the jungle led by Don Pani. He encourages everyone to pick up trash if they see it, even if it isn’t theirs. And even though there is some small trash here and there, overall the place is very clean! This gives a good first impression when arriving to Uxuxubí and shows they practice what they preach.

“We want the one who comes to leave with a beautiful impression, to arrive to a beautiful place.” – Doña Nereida, Uxuxubí community member


Trash bins collecting organic and inorganic waste

Not only does Don Pani encourage everyone to pick up trash when they see it, but the village is also separating trash into organic and inorganic waste. This was something that we hadn’t expected to see. This is a visible way to show visitors about their environmental concern. There is one issue remaining, though, which is the correct use of the trash bins. We think that with the right education, this challenge can be overcome. The waste management after the collection is also something that, for the moment, is a question they are working on. In the past, there was a governmental program where the communities could get food in exchange for their trash. This program ended when the government changed, and for the moment there is no service that would come and bring the trash from Uxuxubí. They have to haul their waste themselves.


Example of solar panels at work

Something else that shows their commitment to nature is the use of renewable energy. They actually installed their first solar panel in the 90s – talk about pioneers! But unfortunately, that was stolen. Today, they have a couple of solar panels to get electricity to the community kitchen, toilet and water pumps. They are interested in installing more solar panels and maybe other sources of renewable energy, like wind.

“Our dream is to be the first community in the Riviera Maya using full renewable energy.” – Don Pani



Don Manuel getting ready to drive to Akumal, the nearest city, 11 km away

For the moment, the community uses vehicles powered by gasoline. However, they dream of changing to clean energy for transportation as well, e.g. solar driven motorbikes.


A crocodile calmly sunbathing in the lagoon.

“Animals were born free, and they should stay free.” – Don Pani

There are a lot of animals in the area, and among them are endangered species like the jaguar. Uxuxubí hopes to live in harmony with the animals surrounding them, meaning if they don’t disturb the animals, the animals won’t disturb them. They also want to engage in preservation programs, and they are working on joining a program for preserving the jaguar.


“If you take care of the air, you take care of your life” – Ramón

The kids have made inspirational signs in school with their own words about the nature and the environment in Uxuxubí.


Coliving with nature.


Big savanna area


Mangrove forest surrounding the crocodile lagoon


Beautiful, traditional style two-story house

Within the community, they have decided to construct buildings in traditional ways using local and natural material. They are working to get the whole community to honor this agreement.

The community has a clear vision, and we hope to able to help them reach it.

~ Jennifer

Welcome to the Jungle


“We say we’re in the heart of the Riviera Maya.” – Don Miguel Pani, Uxuxubí community leader


The main community palapa was built by Uxuxubí community members using local materials

After two days of preparations in Cancún, we loaded into a van and set off for Uxuxubí. None of us knew quite what to expect, but as the van jostled down the 11 bumpy kilometers from Akumal, the nearest city, we knew that it would be quite an experience.


Situated deep in the jungle west of the Riviera Maya, Uxuxubí is home to 20 permanent residents. Four of the five families who live there year-round have young children who attend the community school. The village has a small community center with a large event palapa, a community kitchen, and an impressive bathroom facility. There is some solar power in community areas (enough to charge small devices, like phones and cameras), a communal landline phone, and a wifi router, though we weren’t able to get it to work while we were there. Although it is situated close to the bustling tourism of the Riviera Maya, it often felt like a world away. Being off the grid for a week in this lovely village surrounded by nature was a refreshing change from city life.


We interacted with four families who live in Uxuxubí year-round. Clockwise from top left, they are the households of Don Manuel and Doña Maria, Doña Chely, Don Rámon and Doña Nareida, and Don Federico and Doña Rosa]

Along with the three of us from Aalto, we were joined throughout the week by an Aalto mentor and a team from our partner university, Instituto Tecnológico de Cancún. The team included:



Janett Hernandez  – BSc Accounting


Aaron Lopez  – BSc Mechatronic Engineering


Carolina Isquierdo – BSc Administration


Jorge Trejo Alor – BSc Accounting



Dr. Kennedy Obombo Magio  –  Instituto Tecnológico de Cancún


Anni Hapuoja – Aalto University


Matleena Muhonen  – Aalto University Planning Officer, Sustainable Global Technologies Programme

Project Leader


Dr. Elisa Guillen-Arguelles –  Instituto Tecnológico de Cancún

Guiding us throughout the week was the village leader, Don Miguel Pani. Don Pani is the driving force behind the community, and we were often staggered by the depth and breadth of his ideas for Uxuxubí. We were lucky to be working in a community with such a visionary leader who could provide us with a rich treasure trove of information throughout the week.


Don Miguel Pani – Community Leader

The rest of the village was also extraordinarily helpful and hospitable during our stay. We’re so grateful and humbled to have gotten to work with a community that was so willing to participate in our research and make our stay as comfortable and memorable as possible.

We’re back in Finland now, and we can’t wait to share everything about our trip. We saw great potential for community members to develop tourism on their own terms, and we think that Uxuxubí could eventually be a model for sustainable community-based rural tourism.  

– Liz Miller

Quick update: We’re back from the jungle!

Leaving for Uxuxubí a week ago, we didn’t know what to expect. We knew we were going to a very small village deep in the jungle known for its crocodiles. During our two days in Cancún before heading into the jungle, we received much more information about Uxuxubí from the village leaders, but there was still much to explore.

And explore we did! Right now we’re busy preparing our final presentation for tomorrow, but there will be much more to come about the village, our activities with the locals, the natural attractions, and the many, many post-its we used along the way. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, we’ll leave you with a few pictures of Uxuxubí. This quiet village with pristine natural beauty and deep hospitality has found a special place in all of our hearts!



Delicious empanadas

Delicious empanadas

¡Vamonos a Uxuxubí!

We’ve finally arrived in Mexico!

Our project team at the Instituto Tecnológico de Cancún

Our team at the Instituto Tecnológico de Cancún

Since January, we have been working on this project and preparing for our field trip. Now that it is upon us, we want to share our thoughts and expectations so we can see how they correlate with our experiences during the trip.

For our preparations, we have done research, gathered useful information and discussed about what we would like to do while in Mexico. We are planning on having workshops, doing interviews, mapping and most importantly: observing. We will document everything through writing, photographs and videos, which we will be sharing on our blog. The methods used in Aalto LAB Mexico are based on human-centered design and design thinking principles, so we have also familiarized ourselves with the methods and tools we could use using the IDEO Field Guide for Human-Centered Design. For most of us, these are new methods, so it has been interesting learning about new approaches to research and ideation. Other preparations have been meeting experts Duara Travels and ReiluMatkailu and getting sponsorships from Partioaitta, Moomin Characters and Aalto Shop.

A big thanks to Moomin Characters for sponsoring us! Moomin will be joining us throughout our journey.

A big thanks to Moomin for sponsoring us! Moomin will be joining us throughout our journey.

It has been wonderful to finally get to Mexico and meet the rest of the team! In one of our Skype meetings, we “met” everyone already: all nine students, Dr. Elisa Guillen-Arguelles, the four other teachers and Mr. Pani, the head of Uxuxubí. We have had some great meetings and workshops during our first days in Cancún, and we can’t wait to get to the village. During our first in-person meeting with village leaders, we were moved by their ideas, passion, and deep sense of community spirit.

There is still a lot we don’t know about Uxuxubí, but from what we know they are very eager to get us there and to work with us. This makes it even more exciting to go there, as they actually want us to help and come with new ideas on how to improve the tourism in their village in a sustainable way. We hope to interact a lot with the inhabitants of Uxuxubí and get an understanding of their lives and lifestyles. Further, we are hoping to explore the area and get some guided tours in the surroundings. Uxuxubí is in the jungle, and the villagers have said that there may be natural features they don’t even know about yet. Maybe we can discover some new natural wonders together! Another thing we are planning on doing is mapping with the help of GPS devices. We will also be evaluating customer journeys throughout our stay from the perspectives of different tourist types. This, we hope, can be very useful for helping the villagers come up with possible tourist activities and areas in need of improvement.

Team Uxuxubí is ready to roll!

Team Uxuxubí is ready to roll!

We can’t wait to get started with the actual field trip and for all the things we will learn and experience! We are very happy and excited to help the villagers put Uxuxubí on the map!