For the past thirteen years, Quicksand has been working in India and other emerging markets as a hybrid between a consultancy, a design studio and a collaborative art and craft practice. We are comfortable seeing ourselves as a collection of individuals who are trying to derive meaning out of our own practice and its place within the world at large. Our belief is that interdisciplinary, creative practices hold out a promise for a more purposeful pursuit of growth: one that adequately balances the professional and creative needs of the people that make up the studio with the need to make meaning and affect change at a business, societal and individual level.
Quicksand’s projects have evolved through the years and a lot of them have taken us to interesting places where we have had the chance to delve into myriad contexts, and deeply embed ourselves – listening, observing and making – with humility and openness. I think it was a basic curiosity and our love for stories and travel that spurred our foray into human-centered design which is, at its core, about empathy and deep understanding of people’s needs and designing for those needs.
Human-centered design is about assuming a beginner’s mindset, recognizing that complex problems do not have simple, straightforward solutions, but often require sustained engagement and iterative approaches. However, we too often fall into the trap of latching onto new methods expecting them to give us “clean” solutions quickly, no matter the context. The contexts and their related complex problems though are unforgiving to this naivety. If you are in the business of solving difficult problems, you quickly realize that there is no master key, no single set of tools that can make your life easy. Tools and methods need to be constantly revisited and adapted for each unique context and even then, there is no guarantee for success. But this uniqueness is what we are after and what keeps us excited through so many engagements year after year. We want to understand a context by immersing ourselves into it and in our experience, as may be expected, every context is a singularity – unwilling to fit into any kind of pattern.
A great example of this has been our recent work with the Open IoT Studio where we explored decentralized practices of farming, craft and tribal communities in India, in an attempt to alter and augment the current discourse on IoT, which is dominated by large multinational corporations. The narrative of the IoT is deeply entangled with that of big data and centralized processing & analysis of data from a diverse and vast set of objects that interface with people and communities. Decentralizing this narrative, we think, not only will de-risk IoT but will also allow this key piece of technology to be shaped by diverse voices from all over the world.
We found a portrait of Gandhi at the Trust office. He seemed to appear forlorn in the portrait and had his eyes shut as if in silent contemplation.
While the default option would have been to move to the city in search of a livelihood, this young man from a neighbouring village works at the weaving facility and is able to lead a comfortable life of dignity.
One of the contexts we visited was Melkote, a village about three hours away from Bangalore, where we met with the Janapada Seva trust, a Gandhian organization that works in rural welfare through efforts in education, industry, environment and agriculture. The trust runs a Khadi production facility that is seeking to revive the lost tradition of handloom weaving in the Melkote area. The Khadi movement¹ in India was framed as a non-violent protest against foreign control of the economic, cultural and artistic lives of the people. Gandhi insisted that the state empower villages to remain independent economic entities, with local production aligned with local consumption. It promoted a view of the Indian village (historically the truth of this view is disputed but mythically it still holds sway) that existed almost outside of history – as entities that were eternal and unchanging – that were generally left alone by political machinations that were concentrated in cities and frontier areas.
In its small but spacious facility, the trust is seeking to educate young people of villages, around the area to operate handlooms and produce high quality Khadi fabric and garments. The Khadi process is done completely by hand, from spinning and weaving to dyeing. Santosh Koulagi (son of the founder of the trust, Surendra Koulagi), who handles the day to day operations of the trust told us that the original context in which the local craft of Khadi developed in this area has long disappeared. The Khadi handloom industry was systematically compromised by state bodies tasked with its preservation. Rampant corruption and red-tapism from state bodies and the lack of social recognition combined to suffocate ambition and pride from the artisans. High skill and adeptness only seemed to be rewarded with poverty and extreme loss of pride. Thus, there are no more traditional weavers who are engaged with the craft, requiring training of a new group of individuals. Nevertheless, the trust has seen significant success in producing a modest line of garments for sale to urban audiences in neighboring Bangalore, Chennai and other cities. As with most discourses on revival, it is urban markets that are being counted upon as sources of revenue.
We were told that the trust has received criticism for betraying the Gandhian ideal of local production feeding local consumption. We talked about how what the village economy is now producing is too expensive to be consumed in the villages and how what gets consumed in the villages are invariably the cheap industrial produce of the modern economy. Mr. Koulagi however sees no other way. The village as a sustainable economy, community and social entity has been systematically undermined through decades of development and progress focused on urban areas and reflecting urban values and ambitions. This has meant that the only way young people in villages can be persuaded to stay back is to give them a sustainable income and that income cannot be derived from local consumption. Therefore, urban markets and elite consumers must be targeted. While the trust has garnered criticism for betraying the Gandhian ideal of a self-sufficient economy, we found the trust’s perspective of focusing on the producers rather than the consumers, particularly interesting.
It is a counterintuitive way of thinking for those of us who are familiar with the modern economy. The concern of the trust is not primarily consumer satisfaction or product excellence but providing the young people of the villages an acceptable standard of living. This is not to say that the Khadi produce lacks in quality. The Khadi fabric and garments available for sale in the trust’s small shop were of high quality and the hand-spun Khadi, even after decades of progress in industrial garment production, has a certain crafted charm that is unique to it. What is also unique about this production ecosystem is the absence of the profit motive. When organizations don’t seek to maximize revenue, it allows them space to pursue other concerns. The trust is acutely aware of the consumerism that plagues the modern mindset and is keen to avoid deep association with it by adapting to overtly cater to an urban market need. Instead the trust seeks to thoughtfully create sustainable livelihoods for the locals by building on existing market trends that are beginning to recognize and value handmade products for their worth.
Mr. Koulagi, feels a deep sense of loss over what has now disappeared. The Gandhian dream of a vibrant, independent and sustainable village is now all but lost. As we discussed the future of the Indian village with him, we sensed a helplessness that emerged from the understanding of the true power of the modern forces of progress. All efforts of the trust and others like them in preserving the traditions and values of the Indian village come up against this inescapable force. We also met with the founder, Surendra Koulagi. It was with curiosity and bemusement that he asked us what we were hoping to learn from their ‘small initiative’ that had not reached any massive scale of success. His question to us, in our attempt to learn from these experiments (often manifested through lifetimes of struggles), was if we had the courage and the resilience to swim against the tide that was swiftly washing away any sort of decentralized agency and sustenance.
By the time we were preparing to leave Melkote we were grasping for a silver lining in this overwhelming gloom. We found it in the story of a young weaver in the trust’s production unit. She had lost her husband recently but had also found a job at the weaving facility. She had saved up money and had recently bought a scooter, giving her a new sense of confidence and setting an example for other women and young people in her village. Unlike so many young people in this area, she had chosen not to go to a city but had found gainful employment within the rural setting as a weaver.
Urban India has had a severely negative impact on the rural, sucking away pride, hope and expectation from the rural environment and pulling the best minds to cities and towns. If this trend is to be stopped then more organizations like the Janapada trust are needed to firstly provide sustainable employment to people in rural India within village economies and secondly remind young people of the benefits of a rural lifestyle. Above all a sense of pride needs to return to the Indian village if the Gandhian dream is to survive in some form.
India has a rich tradition of decentralised practices that range from the political to the cultural. These practices, though under pressure now from centralizing market and political forces, are resilient and storehouses of rich traditional knowledge and expertise. Our effort was to learn from these communities, that on the surface are completely disconnected from the IoT discourse, but are in fact storehouses of thousands of years of knowledge and expertise around crafted methods that are embedded in their lives and communities as well as building decentralized means of production and livelihoods. A regular human-centered design brief would have attempted to uncover problems and co-create solutions for these. Instead, being able to approach these communities in a slow and considered manner, without the need to ‘design’ immediate solutions allowed us to learn about traditions and un-codified patterns that build trust without hierarchy, share information and expertise in decentralized systems, develop effective and sustainable production practices and build awareness around the impact of technologies on people.
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