Photo of a farm worker harvesting apples

Co-Design During a Crisis: Ensuring Food Security and the Health of Farm Workers

The Government of British Columbia

How OXD used co-design to help the government move more quickly at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Imagine it’s the beginning of March, and the growing season is about to start in British Columbia.

Thousands of foreign workers are getting ready to travel to BC to support the agriculture sector with the planting, growing, and harvesting of local crops.

Now imagine that it's March 2020, at the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. It's a period of fear and uncertainty, and those same workers that farms and the economy depend on are now seen as a possible vector for contagion.

Oh… and they're arriving by plane next week.

With a food security crisis looming, the Government of BC reached out to OXD for help.

Photo showing two farm workers harvesting crops
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Co-designing a rapid response to an urgent, uncertain situation

In a matter of days, OXD had to guide a multi-disciplinary group from agriculture, public health, emergency management, and information technology to co-design a process that would bring workers into the province during lockdown—safely. 

The new restrictions didn’t allow for in-person meetings, so we chose virtual white-boarding as a way to bring all the ministries together. To many on the team, remote collaboration was an emerging concept at the peak of the pandemic. Government staff weren't used to working this way, especially under stressful, fast-paced conditions. 

Designing on the fly

The pandemic created problems without existing solutions. With so many unknowns, we had to improvise and adapt our methods to the changing situation. Facilitating quick decision-making across government ministries based on the latest, constantly-shifting data was our primary focus.

We used a modified experience mapping method to solve this urgent problem, relying on visual representation to foster understanding. We used iterative co-design sessions—often spaced only a few hours apart—to respond to new information as it became available.

We called it “The Loop”.

The Loop

Static diagram of OXD's co-design process showing flow for foreign workers
First iteration of mapping diagram that OXD developed with the Government of BC

1: Synchronous call and screen share

By hosting and facilitating a group call with senior representatives from across ministries, we created a “rally point” that allowed everyone to collaborate in real-time. These sessions were designed to: 

  • Step through our most recent experience map for how workers would go from their home country to the airport, and then safely onto their host farm.
  • Establish a shared understanding of the experience map across different ministries.
  • Get answers in real-time from the stakeholders as we review the current experience map together.
  • Identify and name unknowns, and assign critical questions to the right people to answer in the next round.

2: Rapid iterations 

Armed with new information and decisions, we worked quickly between call sessions to update the experience map. During this step, we had to:

  • Make updates to the existing experience map based on the live collaboration feedback.
  • Analyze the experience map and identify possible efficiencies or new gaps for discussion.
  • Continually simplify, improve accuracy, and adjust the fidelity of the experience map as needed to ensure that the process was clear and understandable.
OXD co-design process mapping diagrams animated
Actual iterations of mapping diagrams OXD developed with the Government of BC

3: Repeat

Taking the most recent version of the experience map, we repeated steps one and two until we answered all the key questions and reached a level of completeness that made mobilization easier.

Tips for using “The Loop” process

We feel “The Loop” has broad applicability to many types of projects that need to move rapidly and use iteration to find the best possible outcome. Here’s some tips to keep in mind if you decide to use this approach.

  1. Aim for factual accuracy in step one, and don’t worry about the design details yet. Work fast and rough—resist the temptation to use overly-designed visuals when updating the experience map during step one. 
  2. Use elements that convey a “low-fi” visual language—like sticky notes—to layer changes on top of the more “glossy” experience map. This lets people know what’s new and also signals what’s still a work-in-progress. 
  3. Go for visual detail in step two. Spend time refining and perfecting the experience map from a visual communication perspective and then iterate where needed, calling out questions and gaps in a more low-fi way.
  4. Be willing to throw everything out and start over with new ways of visualizing the experience map. Communication is more important than following convention, so don’t worry if the map doesn’t follow “the rules”, as long as the flow is clear and understandable.
  5. And always, always timestamp and save each iteration of the Loop so you can easily go back and review what's changed and decisions that have been made. Your future self will thank you for it.
OXD conceptual illustration of co-design process.

The benefits of working this way

Co-designing the journey through modified experience mapping helped uncover immediate gaps in the process so we could solve them in the moment. This also allowed us to identify the other digital tools and side processes needed to support the farm and the farm worker through their journey. For example:

  1. Through this process, we uncovered the need for inspectors to visit farms before workers arrived. We also collectively identified the need for a quarantine protocol, “B.C.’s Temporary Foreign Worker Quarantine Program”, upon arrival to ensure COVID outbreaks were intercepted and contained before arrival at the farm. 
  2. With a clear understanding of the process, we could design better digital forms for the farm operators participating in the program. Thanks to our experience mapping, we also began to uncover questions or concerns that the farm operators might have so we could proactively address those.
  3. The experience map also helped us to recognize that the foreign farm workers arriving in Vancouver would likely be anxious and uncertain, faced with new barriers and an unfamiliar process amid a global pandemic. We designed clear communication in the form of bilingual handouts containing helpful information about the quarantine procedures. These handouts were distributed to the over 8,564 foreign temporary workers as they arrived at the airport.
Mobile phone with screenshot of a Tweet announcing the successful arrival of farm workers from Mexico into Vancouver, supporting the success of our co-design project work.

The results of our co-design process

The quarantine program worked. The two-year program ended in March 2022 and saw 15,000 workers come through BC. There were 233 workers diagnosed with COVID-19 while in quarantine—with zero spread of COVID to the farms. All instances of COVID were contained. 

OXD icon illustration of a conceptual virus with a line through it in orange on a yellow circle

Zero farm outbreaks

There were no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks on BC farms after the quarantine safety program started and throughout the two-year program.

OXD icon illustration of an apple in orange on a yellow circle

A protected food supply

The program ensured farms had the labour needed to maintain critical harvesting and food supply distribution.

OXD icon illustration of 3 arrows pointing up in shades of orange on a yellow circle

A model program to use across Canada

The program's success in preventing symptomatic workers from traveling to farms and communities helped other provinces improve outcomes.

OXD icon illustration of a heart in shades of orange on a yellow circle

“Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe”

Our experience map assured the physical safety and mental well-being for farm workers, farm operators, and our communities.

OXD helped integrate this co-design model of working into other programs, including the 2020 tree planting season, which saw over 300 million trees planted without a single case of COVID among BC tree planters.

Experience mapping and co-design to remove uncertainty

No one was prepared for what the pandemic would bring and the impact it would have on critical services to citizens. The BC government was able to act quickly and deliver a quarantine program that became a national model for how to treat foreign workers.

OXD illustration of a map for co-design project work

Our method of using design as a visual “rally point” brought different ministries together as we worked to co-design an effective response to an uncertain situation. Using a modified experience mapping approach combined with constant iteration, we helped keep both foreign temporary workers and the food supply secure.

Mobile phone with screenshot of an article saying "B.C.'s $10-million quarantine program seen as a model for how to treat migrant workers." with a photo of Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham, supporting OXD's co-design project work.

We solve complex challenges

Using novel co-design methods, OXD helped protect lives and prevent a food shortage crisis. But even if lives aren’t on the line, your business or project is still important. Contact us if you need help with your critical business challenges.