Human-Centered Design – A Socially Responsible Approach to Engineering Consulting

As I got off my plane and hit the dusty streets of Bangalore, I can’t say that I knew what to expect from the weeks ahead. The bumpy taxi ride to my hotel however, through a city alive with bustling streets full of cows and other honking traffic, gave me a brisk introduction to the Indian lifestyle.

I found myself in India earlier this year, after travelling to attend a 2-week long Humanitarian Design Summit run by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Australia. By nightfall I was at the city’s busiest train station, where for the first time I could meet the other students attending the Summit with me. There were more than 40 of us, from universities all across Australia, trickling into the station wide-eyed and bleary from the many hours spent in transit. Together we then endured a rickety 12-hour train ride, sleeping on bunk beds through the night until we reached our destination in the town of Hubballi, Karnataka.

This was where our Design Summit officially began.

We spent the first couple of days exploring the town and adjusting to the local cuisine (and its effects on our digestive systems). Whilst Hubballi is considered one of the ‘smaller’ cities in India, it is home to nearly one million people – roughly a quarter of Melbourne’s population in an area one-tenth its size. Here EWB introduced us to the principles of Human-Centred Design and Appropriate Technology.

Typically, when engineers are faced with a design task, they are hardwired to use an old, conventional approach – to look for what problems exist, and then to see what needs fixing. In contrast, the Human-Centred model encourages engineers to focus instead on the strengths of a community first, to allow existing opportunities for development to be identified and further built upon through their designs. Additionally, Appropriate Technology aims to use locally sourced materials to create practical, low-cost design solutions for communities.

To practise using these methods, we were sent out in groups around Hubballi to discover how local people went about their daily lives, and use that information to create simple designs which catered to their lifestyles.  While this sounded easy, we soon found it was far more difficult than we’d imagined. Some locals told us there was no need for a design, or that they preferred to use other methods to achieve the same function, promptly dismissing many of our ideas. It became clear to us that one day of merely observing their community was not enough – we would need to consult with locals further if we wanted to present them with good designs.

Modern approaches like the Human-Centred model can help to counter some of the issues that emerge from traditional design methods, where well-intentioned programs can end up doing more harm than good to a community. Negative effects can often arise within the “voluntourism” industry where programs often attract volunteers looking to undertake meaningful work whilst travelling abroad. Despite their goodwill, such programs can inadvertently take jobs away from locals as volunteers end up doing the same work for free.

There is also the risk that a program identifies an issue – such as the fact that a village has no water supply – and invests in building a top-notch water pump before packing up and leaving. Yet later, when the pump inevitably needs maintenance, there may be no locals with the specialised knowledge or tools to fix the technology. Or, locals might discover that their pump drains water out of a local river, which causes villages downstream to have problems watering their crops. These are the types of problems which can result from a failure to properly consult with communities and consider the long-term consequences of a project.

In the next phase of the Summit, our group moved on to our homestay in the small quaint village of Nivaje, with a population of only around 1,000 people. We were welcomed into the village with open arms and swiftly became immersed in the locals’ way of life; working the fields by day; eating meals cross-legged on the ground, and sleeping on hard concrete floors by night.

The more time we spent amongst the locals, the more we were astonished by how tight-knit and resourceful their community was – they even had biogas chambers throughout the village. These large concrete chambers were being installed next to villagers’ houses, to allow locals to cook with the methane gas produced by cow manure as a cleaner, a more sustainable alternative to using conventional wood-fired stoves. The villagers were almost entirely self-sufficient too, growing all of the food and materials they needed to sustain themselves on their own land, and throughout our stay, we were shown how they practised rice farming and made their living – knowledge we could use to further improve our design concepts.

As the Human-Centred model encourages volunteers to empathise with locals first, and gain a proper understanding of how their community operates before designing anything, we aimed to avoid many of the problems associated with ‘voluntourism’. We used the model to focus our time on asking the locals questions, including what aspects of each design they liked, what they felt could be improved, and whether they would use it in their day-to-day lives.

After five incredible days in Nivaje our time ended with an emotional farewell ceremony, and we moved on to the larger town of Sawantwadi where we spent the last phase of the Summit finalising our prototypes. After presenting them back to our community leaders on the final day, we were pleased to find that they were mostly surprised and thrilled by our ideas.

Through the Design Summit, I learned an awful lot about rural Indian communities and their way of life. I was provided with great insights into the different approaches that exist towards community development, and how collaborative design has the real potential to benefit engineering and many other professions alike.

The locals’ kindness and hospitality towards visitors like myself allowed me to experience the vibrancy of Indian culture firsthand, and I certainly believe that the Design Summits run by EWB continue to provide students with a fantastic opportunity to learn and make great contributions toward disadvantaged communities across India, Nepal and Cambodia.

Lot's Wife Editors

The author Lot's Wife Editors

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