Death by Design Solutions: The Absence of Co-evolution

Paulanthony George, Research Associate, IDC

As a part of my masters in industrial design course I was required, for the fulfillment of the degree, to do three main projects and a special research project.

a) Project 1: The first project was a part of the summer internship, where we attempted to finish a pitched project for landscape design for a creche in the IIT campus.

b) Project 2: The second project was related to the domain of designing for the bottom of the pyramid. Our area of work was within paddy farming. Through fieldwork and research the brief that we came up with and the work that we did within the stipulated time span of three months, manifested itself in the form of motorized equipment that was proposed for reducing the effort and time required for paddy harvesting, threshing and winnowing.

c) Project 3: The third project which was the final thesis project, which was done in a duration of six months, was a system design project for researching and finding solutions for Mumbai’s solid waste management. Here the design methods had roots in aversion therapy, gamification and behavioral design. As the academic constraints of the project had the requirement of a tangible product, efforts were made to:

i) Conceptualize and prototype a product that would make the activity of disposing plastic, paper and light disposables, a fun activity.

ii) Propose a system, in which the proposed product and the likes of which would fit in as a part of the downstream waste management solution, keeping in mind trending practices across the world like up cycling of plastics for creating fuel- material for 3D printing.

d) Design Research Seminar: The special project was considered as the primary research for Project 3. It was an ethnographic research, with an attempt to understand the behavior and nature of littering.

Nature of the article: This article primarily concerns itself with my skepticism in design methods that a student develops and is instilled with, within design (and engineering) institutes, the same methods that might be either bolstered or revamped when one leaves the boundaries of academia and enters the “industry” where “actions” have larger ramifications as concepts are realized, monetized and televised as the norm. At faster rates, before doubting Thomas’s can have a second thought, let alone, have a say.

The focus is mainly on the Project 2 and Project 3.

Project 2 Premise: A project, that on paper is for a span of 3 months, with a few courses and electives in the duration of the course. Here we spent our initial first months understanding and trying to conceive of an area of interest, which was narrowed down to paddy harvesting as the project ran from July-November, the season when paddy harvesting is largely practiced in Maharashtra and a few other states. Our field visit was done in Jawahar, Thane. The inhabitants, there practice subsistence farming.

Observations: The observations included the lack of apprehension towards adopting semi- automatic and automatic implements for aiding agricultural practices. There is a keen practice of “Jugaad” and co-operative farming continues to thrive in this area. When asked whether they would like to try out an equipment that would allow them to perform a lot of functions related to paddy-farming in one nest, they seemed to like the idea.

Based on these and more observations, we went about doing the prescribed, secondary research, ideation process, thinking outside the box and other often used buzzwords in the domain of design methodology.

Product-manifestation: Our concept philosophy was to create a product that would have its roots in Jugaad, in the matter of construction, serviceability and usability of the device. As these regions are often far from large industrial servicing centers, they often tend to consult local auto-repairmen to do most of the servicing work.

At its heart it consists of a petrol-powered 2-stroke engine, with a toggle for high and low speeds. We used the motor from an existing paddy harvester with the aim of creating an add-on system from equipment that could be easily sourced, there by reducing the cost of manufacturing of new elements.

The engine would transmit power via an adapter like attachment; it would be connected to a winnower fan and a threshing drum, which would rotate over the shroud of the winnower fan.

The aim being, to marry the activities, of threshing and winnowing, thereby reducing the time and effort.

Doubts: This is the juncture where a lot of skepticism crept in, though it took the time of the jury for it to be realized. The questions asked during the jury only bolstered my doubts.

What does one do with the earned lead-time?
Also is the lead-time required?
If a farmer is able to accelerate the rate at which he is able to finish the process of post harvest practices, would it cause an increase demand in the form of paddy harvested, land tilled and money spent.

As Subsistence farming consists of maintaining a balance in the fertility of the land, would the opportunity of reducing the effort and increasing the yield cause the same kind of damage to both land and man as seen in large scale mechanized farming.

How is the designer or engineer supposed to, realize and respect, the fact that the quanta of effort that is required for an activity comes with many strings attached? That the model of design should consider co-evolution of the man- machine-environment, rather than just create a product which looks at the MME paradigm extremely superficially and sometimes myopically from the point of view of industry profit. And problem identification, for the sake of creating solutions.

Effect: The end of the project, like most projects in design schools has the product being exhibited at various degree shows, department exhibitions and meager half-hearted attempts in participating for some competitions.

The questions largely asked were, whether it works, does it actually reduce the work and some form of complement in the form of it being ingenious, in the way it was put together into a contraption to solve problems related to two activities along with using the jugaad when it came to component sourcing.

The work has been displayed, the thesis has been shared with hope that sharing it openly might have more takers thinking and working on it. However there is apprehension, regarding whether it should be scrapped completely, as it seems to have a capability to do more harm than good. Which is something most products now seem to be doing as the model of co-evolution of the system is barely looked at or avoided intentionally, as this would only increase the gestation period for innovations to be realized and released into the market.

The prototype is now defunct.

Project 3

Premise: The final thesis project was for the duration of 6 months. Here the area selected was using design methodology for solid waste management solutions. I had done a special research project for a span of a month before, which largely focused on the behavioral aspects of littering and the system that currently allows for some solid waste management in Mumbai’s urban spaces.

Observations: My focus was largely within the context of what a person does with a product during the point of disposal and what happens to it after disposal.

Observations were also made regarding the various stake holders that come into play, both the ones appointed by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai as well as the uninitiated and often unmentioned back bone of the system- the rag picker community.

There seemed to be a general lack of incentive to dispose of waste responsibly. Solid waste seems to be understood as something that is of little worth and it is material that has no potential use and has reached its end-of-life.

Product-manifestation: My main focus was in creating a framework that would interact with people in controlled environments with high footfall, like the IIT campus and parks. The facade had to have elements that would create curiosity, amusement and invite people to explore and experiment. It would also house elements that would convert the form of the disposed solid waste into a form that would pave the way for reuse of material and relieve waste management sites like dumping grounds from unsegregated waste.

The product that took form was a fascia with a shredder with a hand crank; the shredder exists in industries in a larger format to handle industrial waste. Here the shredder converts plastic and metal waste that is generally seen in larger quantities in the intended public spaces.

It was exhibited in a degree show and received a lot of feedback both from people who were interested in solid waste management as well as children who seemed to take to the idea of reinterpreting material from waste to fuel, albeit to fuel imagination.

The project when I had taken it always had the underlying intent of trying to understand people and the behavior of littering. From the previous project, the interest in systems and coevolution of people, places and products seemed to be something I nurtured heavily in the this project. However the exploration in cognition had to be cut-short due to academic constraints, which required ideation in terms of product, prototyping and testing. As the shredder was outsourced from Germany (which took considerable amount of funding and energy), exploration with the product itself was sparse.

Doubts: The jury had more interesting insights, where in which it was pointed out, that the way the project took direction was good, as I had used Prof Vijay Kumar’s method of POEMS (People, Objects, Environment, Messages, Services) to draw in the relationships between the various stakeholders. But early on, the project had its direction set in the solutions to solid waste and here is when the upstream part of waste generation was completely overlooked.

Another Lacuna is what prompts a person to make the change from material (with potential) to waste (without potential). And what is the set of dynamics that goes into the system at the moment of disposal.

Effect: One of the major doubts that crept in again is that of co-evolution. There is still a lack of space for waste disposal. If amends are made to curb littering, without trying to segregate and re-utilize material after its first life-cycle, there is an incredible threat. A snowballing effect in consumption of material without conscious material re-use, which would only aggravate a problem that has some solutions, into a problem that like gangrene would cause amputations, the amputees being societies of people that deal with waste. This is seen through rag picking communities in India as well as sanctioned off spaces, like Rio de Janeiro, Jardim Gramacho, Brazil, the world’s largest garbage landfill.

The project has come to a standstill, as it requires more understanding related to stakeholders in the upstream, as well as psyche of litterbugs.