What is the problem?
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ecuador, like many of its neighbors, faced significant shortages of PPE to protect healthcare workers due to the increased demand and lack of local suppliers. At the same time, workers in Ecuador’s informal sectors, including seamstresses, struggled to generate incomes. In Quito, these workers found it difficult to adapt their skills to the changing circumstances and struggled to find new sources of work.
What did the Accelerator Lab and partners do?
Together with the social entrepreneurship DIY Club and 27 local seamstresses, the Lab helped to establish an online peer-to-peer skills exchange program across Quito. The group was largely self-organized and peer-led, with members running virtual training sessions for one another to diversify their skillsets, as well as supporting each other by sharing sewing materials and tools. In the early days of the program, the group received guidance on producing clothing compliant with biosafety standards to enable them to contribute to the pandemic response. They distributed the work amongst themselves using microtasking arranged through their WhatsApp group. Over the first four months of existence, the group members initiated and ran 16 virtual training sessions, amounting to 90 hours of upskilling through peer learning.
What was the benefit of using collective intelligence for this issue?
In return for a small financial incentive from the UNDP, the group produced 800 full sets of biosafety-compliant PPE, helping to fill a vital supply gap in the early days of the pandemic when Ecuador’s healthcare system was overwhelmed. This PPE was donated to local hospitals. The group went on to produce over 2,000 face masks, which are being sold online, and have become providers to the UN System. In addition to exchanging skills and resources, they provided social support for each other when individual members faced adversity and health challenges due to the pandemic. By working closely with the group, the Lab became aware of additional barriers that informal workers and small-scale entrepreneurs face which prevent them from securing stable work. These include the inability of workers to fulfill large orders at short notice or absorb out-of-pocket payments for large quantities of materials before delivery, as well as invoicing limits for workers classified as ‘artisans’. The group shared upfront material costs and negotiated for changes to the contracting thresholds.
Following the completion of the initial training scheme with DIY Club, the members co-founded the textile association ‘Without Borders’ in order to improve their long-term sustainability as a community of practice. The Accelerator Lab and DIY Club have extended the scheme to support a second group whose economic security was also badly hit by the pandemic, ‘Mujeres de Frente’ – an existing network of vulnerable women.
What does this experience tell us about collective intelligence design?
The project helped the team to mobilize skills and assets that were already available in the community. By working with the DIY Club and informal (and otherwise invisible) communities of practice, the Lab discovered a source of skills that was vital to the pandemic response. Using collective intelligence also ensured that they foregrounded the design principle of empowerment, so they not only addressed the PPE shortage but also helped the seamstresses to establish an association for longer-term economic viability.