A cultural shift
By Faculty of Design Associate Professor Lewis Nicholson.
During my year-long sabbatical from OCAD U, I spent several months travelling in India, submerged in an alien environment while engaging in a retreat, as it were, from North American culture and values. I had long harboured a suspicion that I would love India, a positive impression casually formed over the years from all manner of intelligence, but mostly movies, food and lashings of Tetley tea.
In reality, India far exceeded my most optimistic expectations and lived up to all the clichés perpetuated by more thoroughly informed reporters than myself. It is, indeed, a country of richly layered and colourful traditions, cultures and crafts, brutally stark contradictions and contrasts. I have never experienced an environment as stimulating or inspiring, and my time there was one of the happiest, most productive and experientially rewarding periods of my life thus far.
India is a very large country (seventh biggest by area in the world) that is occupied by roughly one fifth of the world's population (1.2 billion and growing). It is home to a diverse human gene pool that reflects a rich history of international trade, invasion and colonization. The 1961 Indian census acknowledged 1,652 separate languages and dialects, 29 of which are now spoken by more than a million people. The sheer physical scale of the country, the size and widespread distribution of the population, and the diversity of conditions and interests guarantees there are no simple, convenient, affordable or universally applicable solutions to most of societies more pressing needs.
India has only been an independent democracy, with her own constitution, since 1950 and has struggled to make sense of a parliamentary political system of governance inherited largely from the British—one clearly designed for a far more compact and intimately scaled society (sound familiar, eh Canada?). Widespread corruption at all levels of society adds enormously to the challenge of getting a handle on what needs to get done in order to improve the quality of life for a greater percentage of Indian people.
During February and early March, I stayed mostly on the southwest coast of India in Fort Cochi, Kerala, where the relaxed pace of village life and a charming domestic situation—a small bungalow off a small back lane, in a walled garden with coconut palms and mango trees—along with a consistently warm climate and the Arabian Sea within spitting distance made for a wonderfully comfortable and fruitful environment to engage in creative work. I had, for once, a luxurious amount of time to reflect on my experiences, engage in research, and consider and prepare a course I had been invited to teach—as I happened to be in the neighbourhood—at The National Institute of Design (NID) in Bangalore.
NID is one of India's most respected design schools. The main campus, in Ahmedabad, was established in 1961 and smaller satellite institutions have been added in Gandhinagar (Postgraduate) and Bangalore (Research and Development). In 2007, OCAD U and NID drafted an Understanding of Agreement to promote opportunities for exchange between the two institutions for both faculty and students. Dr. Soumyajit Goshal, Director of NID, Bangalore, was our guest in 2010 in Toronto. I would be the first OCAD U faculty to practice at NID.
The R&D campus is an intimate and convivial environment (accommodating approximately 90 postgraduate students) and an oasis of comparative calm on the outskirts of a rapidly evolving and expanding city. Historically known as the ‘Garden City', the forests that once dominated the Bangalore area and helped moderate the local climate are being supplanted by high-density high-rise housing, large-scale commercial enterprises and an imperative expansion of public municipal infrastructure. While the ‘IT' boom is transforming the city and creating new opportunities for education, employment, investment and wealth, it also presents enormous practical challenges.
At times these challenges appear to exceed the capacity of existing resources and regular unscheduled power cuts, nullifying traffic congestion, and increasing numbers of improvised slum dwellings provide indisputable evidence of resource capacity overload and exhaustion. At the same time the city is a magnet, especially for the young and the economically dispossessed, and offers, alongside the more traditional fair, a nouveau affluent, cosmopolitan, more Western-style experience and a far more openly permissive society than in most other parts of the subcontinent.
The week-long intensive postgraduate course I conducted was entitled: "The bigger the problem the greater the opportunity: A speculative design workshop." The object of the course was to identify persistent problems within Indian society and explore the channels that might be employed to communicate and promote a cultural shift, both in attitude and behaviour, to help engineer more positive and sustainable outcomes for as many people as possible. As the week progressed we narrowed our focus to more local concerns, however. I initially framed the scope of consideration within a much broader global context.
To quote from the brief:
"Within the next year or so the number of humans on this planet will exceed seven billion. While both our numbers and appetites continue to grow exponentially, the planet we live on, the very environment that supports all life, human and otherwise, remains a closed, finite and irreplaceable resource. We are exhausting the planet's capacity at an alarming and ever-increasing rate, and with little apparent respect or concern for the fine balances and complex symbiotic relationships that sustain all life on Earth...
Can we replace or modify the ever-growing collective and individual culture of instant gratification, constant access, convenience, obsolescence and disposability for one of efficiency and long-term consideration?... Can we project and plan beyond our own self-interest and personal, human lifespans in order to preserve for future generations adequate resources for rich and fulfilling lives?
Everything we are, we know, we have, comes from nature. If we fail to preserve the rich diversity of life and living cultures on this planet then we effectively diminish the breadth and depth of intelligence available to us in the future. How can we better balance and harmonize the finite qualities of nature and our potential as humans? Can we design the transition from societies built on perpetual and unlimited growth to ones motivated to maintain healthy and sustainable levels of production and consumption?"
During my time in India I had become aware of some of the more viscerally obvious social problems. While we in the ‘industrially developed world,' can generally afford ‘out of sight, out of mind' solutions (e.g., human and household waste disposal, subtle and concealed corporate and political corruption, low-income ghettos and First Nation reserves), in India these issues are far more open, exposed and dispersed. Some of the most glaring of these are: poverty; poor sanitation and inadequate healthcare; a reliance on cheap, high polluting fuels (almost every motorized vehicle in India is powered by low grade diesel); inadequate garbage disposal and recycling programs (the influx of cheap plastic goods and packaging has resulted in a tidal wave of non-biodegradable refuse); corruption (which appears rife, across all sectors of society, and crippling to progress); the abuse of women (sex trafficking, domestic violence, rape, lack of educational opportunities, basic human rights violations); and infant mortality. Any one of these problems would have served well as a meaningful and challenging focus for the week but these were my observations, through the lens of an outsider, and what I really wanted to focus on were the problems the students, as citizens of India, identified as the most compelling.
Using Post-it notes (sorry, not the most sustainable of products) each student listed three concerns, these were displayed and discussed and groups of three or four students formed around mutual interests. The rest of the week was spent in discussion, conducting research, considering possible avenues for affecting public opinion and behaviour, breaking for meals (three full and fabulous freshly made meals are served daily by an on-site catering staff, the menu determined by the students), watching India progress in the cricket World Cup (a tournament they would eventually win, cue fireworks), chatting about all manner of things pertinent to saving the world for/from humans.
The week wasn't really long enough to produce more than rough concepts but, nevertheless, the final presentations covered a lot of concerns and offered a number of smart and inventive approaches. Issues such as water management, e-waste, plastic disposal and recycling, sexual equality and female infanticide, littering, wasteful packaging, promoting sustainable doctrines and practices, equipping poorly funded schools, were all covered and often found to be interconnected. Here are a few examples:
- Milk is, nationwide, a primary source of protein and calcium and relatively plentiful and cheap as a resource (cows are sacred and everywhere). It is packaged in plastic bags whose surfaces could be utilized to promote intelligence relating to such concerns as proper garbage disposal, curbing domestic violence (a major problem), discouraging infanticide, etc. The bag itself could also be given value and considered as currency (10 packs = 1 free bag of milk or, as one student ironically suggested, half a litre of gas), encouraging regular users, and those who come across discarded bags, to divert them from an otherwise inevitable and disruptive fate abandoned in the natural environment.
- E-waste is a global problem, but it is particularly acute in countries such as India and China where most of the ‘industrially developed' world's spent technology is shipped for dismantling and recycling. These recycling processes are extremely toxic and wasteful. It was proposed that a national system be created to redistribute old technology to those in need (India's impoverished rural schools, for instance) and individuals and organizations for whom technology is not an affordable option.
- To the casual observer there seems to be a very high level of tolerance for littering in India. One group proposed a campaign for shaming persistent litterers by encouraging the public to photograph (it appeared almost everyone in India has a cellphone with a built in camera, the Buddhist monks seemed to always have the best!) and post images of offenders at either an online facility or on billboards at the site of the offense. Instant bad karma.
Other considerations included establishing new social movements like women's support groups, founding a Green Party in India (there isn't one), using superheroes to promote good citizenship to children, and employing a travelling theatre troupe to communicate issues to the most isolated and poorly educated communities. I understood from a number of students that the course was unlike anything they had experienced before and that they welcomed the opportunity to consider and approach social issues from a designer's perspective. It certainly wasn't everyone's cup of tea, the level of attrition during the week and number of no-shows at the final critique was considerably higher than I am used to and perhaps reflected, not only an instructor who was altogether too relaxed, but also the official designation and particular nature of the course.
"The bigger the problem..." was categorized as an ‘enrichment' course, an interesting concept, and one I thoroughly endorsed. While students who participate are expected to fully engage, it is left to the faculty's discretion whether or not to grade their performance and they are at liberty to offer the section purely as an experience and not a graded credit. Students can engage (or apparently choose not to) without being concerned about how their performance and evaluation will affect their overall academic standing. This encourages risk taking, both by faculty and students, and opportunities for innovation in educational practices, expectations and outcomes. This model fits well with my own philosophy and motivation as an instructor—that education should be a dynamic conversation and not a test or competition.
Other things I learned from my experience at NID include: the importance of scheduling three square meals a day and the additional opportunities for informal engagements between students and faculty that this arrangement encourages; that it is possible to maintain a healthy social and domestic life, quite separate from work, by respecting conventional office days and hours; a campus designed primarily for a positive student experience changes everything; the IT person is the most important person in the school, if not the world, if or when your computer dies the day before you start teaching a new course in a new land and you haven't backed up any of the carefully crafted materials you have been working on for the past couple of months (not that this could have possibly happened to an old pro like myself... thanks Nibu); that sitting down when lecturing, so that everyone is eyeball to eyeball, makes a world of difference in terms of creating a more inclusive experience; that everybody, everywhere knows about and loves TED Talks; that mandatory attendance and presentation of outcomes be a condition for completing any course, ‘enrichment' or otherwise; that I would welcome the opportunity to return to India to teach as soon and as often as possible.
I'd like to thank everyone, both at NID and OCAD U, who made this invaluable experience possible, but especially Dr. Soumyajit Goshal and Professor Manoj Neelakanthan in Bangalore and the students who connected, for whom I'd happily travel half way around the world any day.