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Why the Power of Local Matters and Why International Organizations Won’t, Unless...

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November 23rd, 2020

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The blue planet we call home has become a lot more fragile since we were born. Life is facing unprecedented challenges here, ranging from climate emergencies to extreme inequality. These problems are escalating and affecting the Majority World the hardest. We need to do a lot more, a lot faster, and far more inclusively than ever before to solve these large-scale social problems. This is why all must genuinely value the Power of Local if we are to navigate the many literal and metaphorical storms facing the planet.

As James Scott explains in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, “If your life depends on your ship coming through rough weather, you would surely prefer a successful captain with long experience to, say, a brilliant physicist who had analyzed the natural law of sailing but who had never actually sailed a vessel.” To take this further, you would undoubtedly prefer a successful local captain with lived experience in the local waters you find yourself in to, say, a brilliant foreign captain who has never set sail in your waters. That is, you would want a captain who knows all the local stories of wind patterns and undercurrents. 

Scott illustrates this further (all quotes are below taken from Seeing Like a State unless otherwise stated): 

“When a large freighter or passenger liner approaches a major port, the captain typically turns the control of his vessel over to a local pilot, who brings it into the harbor and to its berth. The same procedure is followed when the ship leaves its berth until it is safely out into the sea-lanes. This sensible procedure, designed to avoid accidents, reflects the fact that navigation on the open sea (a more 'abstract' space) is the more general skill. While piloting a ship through traffic in a particular port is a highly contextual skill. We might call the art of piloting a 'local and situated knowledge.' What the pilot knows are local tides and currents along the coast and estuaries, the unique features of local wind and wave patterns, shifting sandbars, unmarked reefs, seasonal changes in microcurrents, local traffic conditions, the daily vagaries of wind patterns off headlands and along straits, how to pilot in these waters at night, not to mention how to bring many different ships safely to berth under variable conditions. Such knowledge is particular, by definition; it can be acquired only by local practice and experience. Like a bird   that has adapted brilliantly to a narrow ecological niche, the pilot knows one harbor. . Despite the rather narrow context of this knowledge, it is agreed by captains, harbormasters, and, not least, those who insure maritime commerce against losses that the pilot’s knowledge of a particular port must prevail. The pilot’s experience is locally superior to the general rules of navigation.”

The trouble in the 'social good' space is that the majority of “captains” (typically white, male, Western) and their “ships” (international organizations and startups) do not turn control over to local experts. It is equally problematic that most "captains" and "ships" are white, male, Western, international organizations and startups, of course. They ignore local knowledge and know-how, savoir-faire, based on lived experience and local, common-sense experience. Scott refers to this as metis. Alas, metis is rarely valued by the “captains” of “social good.”

“One major reason why metis is denigrated is that its ‘findings’ are practical, opportune, and contextual” rather “scientific” or “technical” as understood by Western organizations." Metis is “difficult to translate it into codified form. It is so implicit and automatic that its bearer is at a loss to explain it. Metis resists simplifications into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and non-repeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply.” 

How do you codify intuition?

Metis is indispensable because the alternative—technical knowledge (or techne)—is “far slower, more laborious, more capital intensive, and not always decisive. When rapid judgments of high (not perfect) accuracy are called for, when it is important to interpret early signs that things are going well or poorly, there is no substitute for metis. It is, in fact, the idiosyncrasies of metis, its contextualism, and its fragmentation that make it so permeable, so open to new ideas.” Local knowledge is “as economical and accurate as it needs to be, no more and no less, for addressing the problem at hand." In short, transferring metis from local experts to foreign experts is far, far more challenging than transferring emerging technologies to local experts.

Metis drives disruptive innovation. Drawing from Gawain here, the basic idea behind the “theory of disruptive innovation” is that leaders of international organizations tend to focus their energy on their most profitable “customers and their most immediate threats,” and, as a result, overlook many new opportunities surfacing on the horizon. These opportunities usually come from “unexpected places” where metis serves as the common language rather than the technical language that powers international organizations. International organizations lack fluency in metis. So they often overlook new opportunities that emerge at the network’s blurred edges. International organizations cannot see the view from below, where metis, dynamism, risk-taking, and innovation thrive. Instead, they “focus their energy on competing at the top end of their business with more innovation, quality, and higher margins competing in the fattest part of the market, where the profit is highest… until it’s gone.” The trouble is that metis often becomes a casualty in the process. " The destruction or metis and its replacement by standardized formulas legible only from the center are virtually inscribed in the activities of both the state and large-scale bureaucratic capitalism.” Some say this is also true of international organizations.

International organizations that wish to remain relevant at the end of this decade must become genuine local-first organizations. To do this, they must first acknowledge their failures

“If I were asked to condense the reasons behind these failures into a single sentence, I would say that the progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were.” 

Less arrogance goes a long way. Before implementing a new project, international organizations should ask themselves "to what degree it promises to enhance the skills, knowledge, and responsibility of those who are a part. If the answer is little-to-none, these organizations are still discriminating against local expertise by prioritizing techne over metis." In conclusion, international organizations (including WeRobotics) should have “a little more ‘reverence for life,’ a little less straight-jacketing of the future, a little more allowance for the unexpected—and a little less wishful thinking.”

Learn more about our efforts to Shift the Power here.


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