Five ways parenting is like researching the informal economy
There are things in life that you simply cannot learn by taking a class.
For example, how to map an informal neighborhood unrecognised by a local government.
Or how to distinguish when a baby is crying out of hunger, exhaustion or the need to be entertained.
As a design researcher focusing on emerging systems of cities, I recently realised that learning how informal economies and babies operate is in that very group of things you just have to figure out for yourself. Or in the words of the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, ‘The only way to do it is to do it.’
In South London, I mapped how immigrants reformulated storefronts into mini street markets. In Mumbai, I designed card games and postcards to include street cleaners and fishermen in the urban planning process. And most recently in Kuwait, I documented informal housing for undocumented workers.
All of these projects required paying attention to my surroundings, constantly iterating approaches to collecting information and engaging people, and all the while exercising tremendous patience for the process. It turns out these projects were a good primer for parenting.
As a first-time mom of a nine-week old human being, I was invited to give a talk on design research methods for informal economies at the School for Visual Arts (taught by some the creators of Makeshift Magazine). In a time and sleep crunched state preparing my slides, I began thinking how parenting resembles researching the informal economy.
So here, in an expanded version of the first slide of my talk, are five ways that the subject areas cross over:
1. Early starts and late nights
Informal markets and newborns open early and work late. They both run on 24 hour schedules and you need to be present throughout to understand their daily rhythms.
2. Balancing romance and science
Theories of economic development and child development can be useful frames of reference. Falling in love with your subject matter can also be helpful. Without a deep love for your subject or outside reference points, research and rearing can get confusing and exhausting.
3. Everything is temporary
You spend one day mapping trading patterns at a street market and you think you’ve got it all figured out. The next time you return, new construction, new vendor alliances, or a new immigrant group has shifted the spatial dynamic you once understood. Same with baby. What soothes, captivates or distracts is very rarely the same from one day to the next.
4. Something so pervasive is yet so mysterious
Both researching informality and parenting are like joining the world’s largest underground-overground network. Informal trade shapes everything we touch - from the food we eat to the technology we use, yet until we explicitly set off to study informal markets, they remain invisible. In a similar vein, parents and kids are all around us, yet until we become the former, it’s difficult to generate a fine tuned empathy or awareness of the social conventions, services and spaces conducive to caring for your charge. Just as I learned to decipher the three informal businesses being run from the 2nd story of a McDonald’s in London, I can now name the make/model of any baby carrier from across the street.
5. It’s okay to be paranoid
Both informality and babies can inspire healthy doses paranoia. It’s okay. It’s only human to be protective of your offspring and your livelihood, especially when both are in constant states of emergence and growth.