The following framework has proven effective for rapid decision making, managing risk and widening the range of contexts where our teams are comfortable operating. It draws on running street research in locales such as Afghanistan, Brazil, China, Iran, Myanmar and Nigeria — and is suitable for street interactions in moderate to high risk environments where there is the possibility of arrest, detention, requests for bribes, and entanglement in red tape. In a future issue I’ll cover our approach to operating in more complex environments that include the risk of surveillance, kidnap, and death.

This article first appeared on Radar — the Studio D monthly mailing list

Conducting street research in a foreign culture can be an effective way to broaden the team’s contextual understanding of a locale and the issues that affect local inhabitants decision making processes, and thus is a valid addition to foundational research projects.

The following example is from a field study in Rio de Janeiro early in my career. I’d just spent twelve days in the company of sixteen team members — five international crew and eleven locals and was feeling fuzzy from the inevitable cat-herding that occurs with a team of this size. The field research project wrapped with a celebration the night before, and this morning the rest of the international team had departed for Galeão International Airport.

I’d arranged for a motorbike + driver for half a day to explore diverse neighbourhoods of the city and to collect B-roll — photography that adds colour and perspective to our more structured research. The driver, let’s call him João, lives in the vibrant favela of Jacarezinho, knows the city well and was arranged by one of our local fixers who works in the film industry.

João and I set off from our popup studio on his beat up 250cc Suzuki, and with my total lack of Portuguese I’m using hand-signals for directions to likely areas of interest. When something caught my eye we’d either pull over and observe and/or I’d dismount and take photos using a bulky Canon 5D with a 16–35mm lens i.e. a professional-looking camera. When riding I like to keep my hand on the camera primed to take photos at a moment’s notice, with it tucked in between the driver’s back and my body, but because of the relatively high incidence of street crime in Rio I held the camera inside my open field satchel. Passing through upscale neighbourhoods this turns out to be a rookie mistake because two guys on a motorbike that are “obviously not from around here” with the passenger with his hand on a hidden object inside a bag makes pedestrians very skittish — like meerkats sensing that something bad is about to go down. From then on, when in the vicinity of pedestrians I revert to storing the camera in the satchel and keeping hands in plain sight. Whilst it is common to refer to being able to “read the street”, in environments where violent outcomes are a possibility it is more important to “help the street read you” — to acknowledge the existing “owners” of the space, to communicate that you aren’t a threat, and to understand how to move from being tagged as a stranger to person worthy of social interaction.

About two hours into the ride, we pull off a three lane highway into what looks like an industrial area and having committed to the turn-off, are approaching a police checkpoint manned two cops, one of whom wave us down. As rule of thumb, cops in Brazil are not held in high regard by locals, with interview respondents and our local team sharing multiple stories of shakedowns, and from João’s tense body language he’s not expecting a positive outcome. There is no passing traffic i.e. witnesses to the interaction. The cops have a legitimate reason to pull us over because I wasn’t wearing a helmet, a requirement on the highway. As we crawl to a stop my mind is starting to think through possible outcomes. On one end of a spectrum of possibilities is paying an “on the spot fine/bribe”, having the motorbike impounded, and perhaps confiscation of my camera, which at that time worth about $4k. On the advice of our local crew, I have a photocopy of my passport rather than carry the original so that it cannot be held as leverage, although the camera might serve the same purpose. On the other end of the spectrum, with a view to collecting interesting B-roll I imagine a scene where later in the day we are in a photogenic cop-bar, they are sharing their life stories and explaining the alternative economics of being an officer of the law in Rio de Janeiro. (I’d previously been invited to a tour of the mountain top BOPE (SWAT equivalent) headquarters, complete with skull-decaled and bullet pockmarked vehicles).

First impressions based on ethnicity, gender, life-stage, dress, props, etc, have an overwhelming impact ad-hoc social interactions. I’m in the privileged position being white, male, middle-aged, and have the good fortune (and some planning) to lose everything I carry without it being a life altering event. The range of possibilities and outcome in this example could have been very different if, for example I was a person of colour at a traffic stop in the United States.

At the traffic stop João and I are standing about two meters from the cops who are eyeing him, the motorbike, me, and my camera in my right hand, and I assume they are parsing their optimal outcome in this situation. About two seconds in I acknowledge that the cop is looking at my camera, and gently throw it to him, which he catches instinctively. He looks at the camera, looks at me, looks back at the camera, looks at his buddy, looks at me, processing what just happened. It is in this moment that I put my arm around João and motion for the cop holding the camera to take our photo. He declines, hands back the camera, and tells us to be on our way. We mount up, and as soon as João and I turn the corner he stops, we dismount and he lights up a cigarette. He’s been slightly gruff this whole time, but now he’s shaking his head and giggling at what just occurred.

Breaking down what happened

In social interaction terms what just happened?

  • João and I were in a social situation with established norms of who has power, how they wield that power and a well-established range of likely outcomes. They also had the legal right to the stop us, not that it necessarily mattered in this context.
  • As an obvious (white, male, middle-aged) foreigner it is an open question whether I understand the norms, which both raises the stakes for the police (more paperwork! Could be someone important! Negative publicity for the department!) and possible positive outcomes (foreigners are rich, a greater payoff from myself or João! Interesting conversations!).
  • A professional looking camera opens the possibility that I might be an journalist, an investigative reporter or a dumb tourist — locals would be very wary about open-carry of a high value object. Requesting bribe from a tourists raises the stakes and would likely go one of two ways: an increased pay-off, or a higher preference to end the encounter. In some contexts I’ve experienced, the locals I’m travelling with have been pulled aside for the shake-down, with the costs then passed onto me.
  • Whilst the police were processing being given control of the camera, I proactively nudged us out of the norms for this situation using universally recognised actions and behaviours: humans instinctively catching an object of value, ceding control of a object of value without being asked, coerced or ordered, and then posing for a photograph — all off which lie outside the norms of a traffic stop.
  • The outcome of being told to go on our way, most likely occurred because it didn’t feel quite right and the cost of the cops making a suboptimal decision were unknown.

How to build an effective Possibility Spectrum

Over my career I’ve experience numerous situations like this, each with similar outcomes. The following has helped me define a realistic spectrum of possibilities, change the prevailing trajectory of the interaction, and avoid worst case outcomes.

  1. Expose yourself to diverse team members, situations and contexts — there is no substitute for first hand experience of a wide range of situations. Feed this experience into your knowledge bank of behavioural norms and outcomes.
  2. Invest in the relationship with your local team so that they are more likely to share their experience of negative outcomes and are comfortable to introduce you to situations where you will also experience them.
  3. Recognise the likely range of outcomes for different situations, and identify the best and worst case scenarios if you don’t intervene.
  4. Walk through the consequences of outcomes and weigh up possibilities and probabilities. Put negative outcomes into perspective, and understand where and why fear is paralysing. Some fears require ongoing close attention but others can be processed ahead of time, enabling better prioritisation in the moment.
  5. Understand the norms of a space (reading the street) and your impact on that space (letting the street read you). Consider pairing up with someone that is “Not like you” i.e. different gender, life-stage, ethnicity etc, and learn how to tag-team social interactions together.
  6. Understand the window of opportunity prior to the other party’s commitment to their optimal course of action, so that a new trajectory can be introduced. In the Handbook I introduced the concept of a conducive moment that can occur at specific points of the social interaction, not only early on. (The OODA loop approach emphasises early action in the window of opportunity to limit an adversary’s time to react, where as a conducive moment may well occur later in the interaction, enabled by small actions. As researchers we assume most interactions are adversarial. Actions that build up to the conducive moment is referred to as laddering, and a skilled practitioner knows how to time each step of the ladder for it to feel natural to the flow of social interaction.
  7. Post-event, reflect on the variables, the outcome that occurred, other possible outcomes, and the moments where the trajectory of events could have been altered or challenged and feed this into the knowledge bank of possibility spaces.
  8. Understand the limits of the spectrum of possibility model. A spectrum works best for non-complex situations where negative outcomes include requests for graft, theft, being detained, arrested — which are relatively common where we operate. However, a linear framework is too simple for complex higher risk environments where the outcomes include kidnap, rape, the death of your local and international team members, their communities, and yourself. In a future issue of Radar I’ll walk through Studio D’s approach to more complex and higher risk scenarios.

Being able to alter the prevailing trajectory of events can feel like a superpower, particularly when the other party is in a position of authority. It takes repeated first-hand experience and reflection to understand how prevailing trajectories can altered. Over time I’ve come to enjoy these moments, treating them for what they are: valuable life lessons in human motivation, being able to shape the outcomes of social interactions regardless of local language skills and whom is notionally “in charge”.

This was my first visit to Brazil. Two weeks prior to this incident I would have been wholly unequipped to challenge the prevailing course of action, and was very skittish in my first visits to favelas and around local authority figures. It took repeated exposure and many conversations with our local crew to build the required level of confidence.

I run Studio D Radiodurans, a research, design and strategy consultancy that specialises in international projects that require a discreet presence.

Founder, Studio D Radiodurans. Writing at the intersection of design, human behaviour & culture @janchip