What is Ka Maka ʻĪnana?

Written by Alec Wagner
October 26, 2020
Last Winter, the Purple Maiʻa Foundation began an experiment that included the launch of an unprecedented initiative to indigenize the design thinking process from a Hawaiian point-of-context. This initiative was called Ka Maka ʻĪnana, which, broken down, translates to “to see” (ka maka) and “inspiration” or “the giving of life/creation” (ʻīnana). This article describes the origin of Ka Maka ʻĪnana, the result of the initiative’s first implementation, and our aims for the second implementation in the Fall of 2020-Spring 2021. 

For context, the author of this article is Alec Wagner, a director at the Purple Maiʻa Foundation who oversees and leads the organization’s Purple Prize incubator, university partnerships, and the Ka Maka ʻĪnana initiative. He, with the help and inspiration of Kelsey Amos, Scott Shigeoka, Kamuela Enos, Ian Musson, Matthew Kamakani Lynch, Daniel Kinzer, Ruby Menon, Hailama Farden, Ian Custino, and other community members, as well as the published efforts of the Creative Reaction Lab, IDEO, Design Justice Zine, Ezio Manzini, Daniel Christian Wahl, and Stanford and MIT’s design schools, created the Ka Maka ʻĪnana initiative in 2019 and established the (K)new Futures partnership (Ka Maka ʻĪnana’s sister program) with the University of Hawaiʻi Office of Indigenous Innovation and Office of Sustainability. Alec recognizes and is open about the fact that he is not indigenous, but considers his role as an ally to the Native Hawaiian community. 

Here is his account.

The Origin of Ka Maka ʻĪnana

We can’t talk about the origin of Ka Maka ʻĪnana without describing the history of the Purple Prize, an indigenous innovation incubator program, so I’ll start there.

The Purple Prize was started in 2016 for 2 reasons. Firstly, the kids we were educating in computer science and coding through Purple Maiʻa Foundation’s after school programs weren’t likely to remain in Hawaiʻi after high school graduation, hence the recognition that we needed to build an indigenous innovation ecosystem that would keep them here and create cultural resurgence. Secondly, it was a way of seeing how many local people were creating technologies rooted in culture and ancestral practice. 

The inaugural Purple Prize competition was held and seven teams pitched amazing technologies. An unexpected result: there were others in Hawaiʻi who were working on these technologies who weren’t known to us and many who were were inspired by the initial seven innovations. 

That sparked the desire to run the competition again, and in 2017, the prize attracted 11 teams that were even more impressive than those who pitched in 2016. Some of these teams, we felt, had commercial viability as well, sparking the idea of re-engineering the Purple Prize and growing the effort. 

That materialized in 2019 in the form of a two-phase incubator. The first phase called the Connections Phase was aimed at bringing together people from different backgrounds and expertise to learn about indigenous innovation. The second phase, the Building Phase, was dedicated to building the teams and innovations with the highest potential into enterprises that were on a pathway to generating economic wealth and positive impact.

When we ran the Purple Prize with more entrepreneurial goals in 2019, we quickly realized that the capitalist paradigm didn’t fit our Hawaiian cultural context and because of that, available resources and existing models for innovation, entrepreneurship, and design thinking didn’t quite work for our entrepreneurs. What that led to was a split between the education of things Hawaiian and things entrepreneurial/design-related rather than a cohesive mix of the two. 

By the end of the program, what we saw was a number of innovative companies that had indigenous elements and just a few indigenous innovation companies. The founders of the latter were Native Hawaiian and came from academic backgrounds involving Hawaiian history and knowledge, so it was no surprise that those founders created what could be labeled as indigenous innovation especially well.

After the Purple Prize ended, we did some deep thinking and research and came to the conclusion that if we were to create cohesion between what is indigenous and what is innovation, we needed to change how innovations were designed and the way that innovators actually think, which brought us to design thinking. 

During the Fall of 2019, we spent time diving deep into this foundational concept and learned about different design thinking methodologies like Human Centered Design (“HCD”) and Equity Centered Community Design (“ECCD”). In our research we found a number of flaws:

  • Human Centered Design is human focused and does not take into account the culture or history of a community. It is rooted in the present and focused on the future. 
  • Equity Centered Community Design–a process that emerged from the 2014 Ferguson protests following the unjust killing of Michael Brown–takes into account an understanding of community and history, but neither it, nor HCD account for environmental systems and our relationship to land. 
  • Both HCD and ECCD are usually implemented in groups/communities by a facilitator, suggesting there is a “right way” to implement design thinking processes. 

Eventually, our inkling that there were no resources or models for indigenous design was proven. We realized we needed to re-design the design thinking process in a way that satisfied those shortcomings.

Our new design thinking process needed to have these qualities:

  • Focused on Land and People, equally
  • Was different, depending on what community you are in
  • Was designed by the community that would use this and was based on the practices “indigenous” to that community, historically
  • Was “Living” — something that could be iterated democratically over time so it stays relevant with the changing times and improves

So Ka Maka ʻĪnana was created.


What happened (and happens) in Ka Maka ʻĪnana 

(Section in collaboration with Kalei Akau, former Purple Prize documentarian)

Ka Maka ʻĪnana was an immersive, 16-week program aimed at empowering our Honolulu community to create its own design thinking guide based off of the practices and mindsets of local cultural practitioners, ancestral knowledge holders, kūpuna, Indigenous innovators, etc. Throughout the program, which started in December 2019, the Ka Maka ʻĪnana cohort was tasked with collectively documenting insights gathered from their interactions with these thought leaders to create a design thinking process innovators like themselves could follow when creating their own products.  

In many programs, there is a roadmap or prescriptive formula that participants are asked to follow to get to their end product. This was not the case with Ka Maka ʻĪnana. The cohort knew that their end product would be the first iteration of the living design field guide but they were not told what to do or how to do it. As facilitators, we were learning with the cohort. We watched how they interacted, processed what they learned, and applied information to write and design content for their sections. We stepped in to add insights, resources, and support where needed. Many times we asked ourselves “how do we facilitate this session?” because we were stepping into the unknown as much as our participants. Like the wayfinders and voyagers that first navigated their way to Hawai’i, we had to hold the path between where we have come from and the new place we have yet to pull from the sea. The cohort had to seek and listen to the signs in our community that offered ancestral wisdom and a vision for the future. 

Ka Maka ʻĪnana kicked off with a potluck at Hālau ‘Īnana, where the 40 member cohort shared food, stories, and space. Donavan and Olin taught us how to pound poi and make laulau. Kalei taught and shared the meaning of the protocol oli, E Hō Mai and Oli Mahalo, which root our time spent together in gratitude and open our ears and minds to new knowledge from those around us. When it was time to start working, Ka Maka ‘Īnana (KMI) focused on context setting, introductions and empathy building. We first needed to establish a culture of vulnerability, transparency, trust, and collaboration. To do this, we used Auntie Pua Burgess’ “Guts on the Table” exercise. The KMI cohort was responsible for taking ownership of this process. This ownership required the cohort to decide their rules of engagement and to set protocols for decision-making and communication. For example, the cohort determined they would start and end every meeting with E Hō Mai and Oli Mahalo to remain grounded in the place and practice of Hawaiian thinking and doing. 

The KMI cohort divided in teams to tackle four distinct segments of the process:

  • Indigenous Designer: What makes an Indigenous designer?
  • Inspiration: How does an Indigenous designer seek inspiration?
  • Ideation: How does one ideate indigenously?
  • Implementation: How might we implement an action in an Indigenous way?

It was during the weekly ʻĪnana sessions and work nights where teams would tackle these four segments. During the ʻĪnana sessions, participants heard from a local cultural practitioner, ancestral knowledge holder, kūpuna, or Indigenous innovator and during the worknights, they would collaborate and work to document, discuss, digest and distill their learnings. Often these work nights would go on past 9 pm, but people stayed engaged and continued their efforts. Together, through deep and intentional listening and practice, and a weaving together of their varied perspectives through many challenges and iterations, they created this field guide. Students, teachers, entrepreneurs, artists, engineers, city planners – some of Hawaiian ancestry and all with a strong sense of commitment to our place and community – have given over a combined 1,000 hours of their time and even more of their energy, intention, and intelligence. In the end, the cohort produced 51 pages of manaʻo that serve as the starting point to the living design field guide. 

In the second phase of the program, the cohort was joined by 11 UH students who were a part of Ka Maka ʻĪnana’s sister program, (K)new Futures, to put the design field guide into action, creating ideas for (k)new solutions and enterprises by following a process that is truly place- and community-based. 


What’s coming

A year later, four new companies emerged from Ka Maka ʻĪnana that were accelerated in the 2020 Purple Prize: ʻŌiwi Online, Exchange Ave., Kanu Offset, and Vegetation Continuum. All of them were built upon a foundation of Hawaiian culture, generational practices and knowledge, and indigenous design and all are poised to succeed from a business standpoint.

We’re about to start our next Ka Maka ʻĪnana cohort in what seems like an entirely different world in the context of COVID-19. We plan to run it virtually, which will require us to be even more intentional about the digital spaces we create and the relationships we build, but the network of knowledge-holders, kumu, and partners we have been able to assemble has never been stronger. We think this is because they sense, like us, that we are in times of hulihia, or change, where systems are destroyed so they can be rebuilt stronger. 

And because we are in times of hulihia, the purpose of Ka Maka ʻĪnana and the creation of (k)new solutions has never been more important. We need 30 people to rally together around a shared vision and build the foundation for a future where Hawaiʻi is regenerated, equitable, and abundant. 

Apply to Ka Maka ʻĪnana


Learn more and get involved at purplemaia.org/kmi. If you have questions for the author or about the program, please feel free to contact alec@purplemaia.org, directly. 

Listen to Alec, Kamu, and Ka Maka ʻĪnana participants speak about Ka Maka ʻĪnana and (K)new Futures in this recording from the Code for America Brigade Summit in October 2020. Below is a snippet:

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