Practicing Supply Chains

Class size (ideal):​ 15-20 students

Class time:​ 75-90 minutes

Context.

This class activity belongs to a section of the course where students learn how digital media provides the infrastructure for everyday processes, such as trade. In the preceding classes, students have read Shannon Mattern, “Scaffolding, Hard and Soft: Infrastructures as Critical and Generative Structures” as well as Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler, “Anatomy of an AI System.”

Preparation before class.

Students read “See No Evil” by Miriam Posner.

Learning Objectives.

  • Experience in real time the stakes laid out in Posner’s analysis of supply chain and the obfuscation of information in digital networks.
  • Understand how the linear node structure of supply chains relates to restricted access to information.
  • Brainstorm how the distributed sharing of information may facilitate better functioning of these networks.
  • Understand how time restrictions shape the sharing of information and may lead to imperfect outcomes.
  • Reinforce their comprehension of the main points made in Posner’s article.

Set Up.

  1. Assign students into 5 groups of 3 by numbering them.
  2. Create 5 table spaces, one for each group.
  3. Take the list of questions [PDF] and cut off into 5 slips of paper.
  4. Bring up timer on screen. This online option allows for a background image, so I suggest pulling a “supply chain” image from Google.

Activity Timeline.

Round 1:
Each group will receive one question. They have 10 minutes to answer it. By the end of the 10 minutes, everyone in the group should be able to explain the answer to anyone else in the class.

Draw a diagram on the board that links up the tables in order:

Round 2:
Each group can send only one member to the next node in the line (e.g. a member from Group 2 must go to Group 3’s table). They have 10 minutes to exchange information.

Round 3:
Each group can send only one member to ​any​ other node, but by the end of this round your group must have the answers to all the questions. Each group has 1 minute to decide where to send their member. They have 10 minutes to exchange information.

[NOTE: variations on this round can include whether groups can coordinate among themselves or if each group must make their decision independently.]

Final Round:
Based on the information they gathered from all the groups, each group must now answer:

  • Is a more transparent supply chain possible? Why or why not?
  • Is a more just supply chain possible? Why or why not?

They have 10 minutes to write down their explanations.

Debrief.

Each group shares their answers to the last two questions.

Discussion questions:

  • What are some impediments to a more transparent and/or just supply chain?
  • Does transparency lead to justice? Can you have one without the other?
  • What ideals (e.g. efficiency, speed, profits) shape supply chain design currently?
  • At what cost do supply chains fulfill these ideals?

Draw connections on board signaling how the groups shared information in Round 3.

Meta-debrief:

  • What is the purpose of this activity?
  • What does the sharing of information in Round 2 represent?
  • How did you make your choice for information sharing in Round 3? What is that meant to represent?
  • How were your information sharing goals ​different​ from those of a commercial supply chain? [relate back to thinking about ideals and costs]
  • Why did we use a timer?