Replacing Cookie Cutters with Human Centric Design; Putting People First

Sailing into the port of Mumbai one could be fooled into thinking it was Hudson Bay, New York. The skyline is littered with skyscrapers – beautiful modern constructions: glass, curved, multistory and helipad-roofed. Of course, closer inspection of the city from the ground reveals quite a different sight. Looking down rather than up, sprawling slums nest around the bases of high-rises – the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty for which Mumbai is infamous. But this chronic Indian wealth disparity is not the subject of this particular piece. Rather, I want to highlight the misfit of many of India’s recent “development solutions” for the country itself, starting with these buildings.  It is a misfit for which I believe India has the Western world to thank.

Environmentalists argue that recent increased air temperatures in Mumbai are directly linked to the numbers of new glass skyscrapers in the city. The glass used in these buildings streamlines sunrays, magnifying their intensity, creating a literal greenhouse effect within the buildings. This then requires vast amounts of A/C energy consumption to cool the buildings back down, and this dramatic increased energy use is heating up the whole city. Most of these glass buildings are either corporate offices or hotels, supporting the ever-increasing number of foreign workers in the city. The modernity of the buildings has brought Mumbai up to par with its global economic counterparts: New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai as a legitimate centre of business and commerce. It almost seems that without such modernity, Mumbai is somehow left behind as a world player in big business. In rainy London and chilly New York, the greenhouse skyscraper design works well. The glass buildings save on heating costs as they warm up quickly with just a little sun. But in India they make absolutely no sense when a less expensive alternative could, by design, keeps its interior cool. This is a classic example of cookie cutter model failure: a design that works in the West, but fails elsewhere.

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I must confess I cannot take credit for noting this fact about the buildings. Social and environmental investment advisor, Neeraj Doshi, brought it to my attention when he presented at the recent training conference for fellows of the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterprise.


I believe Doshi’s point about the misfit of the Mumbai buildings rings true above and beyond climate conditions. I spent last year as an IDEX fellow myself in Hyderabad, working in an affordable private school serving the low-income community in the old and orthodox Muslim part of the city. My job was to identify challenges the school faced and develop and implement sustainable solution programmes to help them. One of my central projects was to help develop a learning difficulty scheme to improve the situation for the children in the school identified as “basic learners”. I started my research, as many do, with trusty Google, thinking about the kinds of support children with learning difficulties receive in my home country, England.  In the UK, the government offers testing of children with learning difficulties and provides lots of great resources for free. After some research, I discovered exactly the same opportunities for government testing exist in India, and it was a simple case of getting kids to a testing centre in Hyderabad. I triumphantly announced this discovery in my school and was surprised and disheartened to be met with very little enthusiasm and a lot of anxious head bobbles. I couldn’t see the problem. One teacher eventually explained. “None of the parents will go for it,” she told me, “over here that’s basically a doctor certifying that your child as stupid.”

Another case of cookie cutter failure, this time on my part. It had never occurred to me that something like parent attitudes would be powerful enough to prevent the success of something so logically valuable. It took me a while to get this information out of the teachers – people in India don’t like to be the bearer of bad news, particularly when talking to foreigners – and it was only because I had developed a particularly close relationship with this one teacher, that I found out at all.  I had to rethink my whole approach, this time starting from an understanding of parent, teacher and student motivations. If I had pushed forward with my original plan of getting kids tested, I could have done some real damage. I learnt my lesson that day – rather than trying to fix people, how about actually listening to them.

The Human Centered Design toolkit is an incredible resource developed by IDEO and the Gates Foundation for people working in development. HDC is about putting people first. Rather than working from problem straight to strategy hypothesis, you must first take a step back to understanding the motivations of all the key stakeholders in any one situation. IDEX fellows train in this kind of design thinking and try to bring in this approach to the work we do in India.

We did still make headway with the learning difficulty programme at my Hyderabad school. It involved a film screening for the parents of the as fantastic Taare Zameen Par, a Bollywood blockbuster by Aamir Khan about a boy growing up in India with dyslexia, as well as a session led by a local respected a Muslim lady explain to the parents, in Urdu, that learning difficulties just mean a different style of learning. Often dyslexic children are more creative and have high IQ’s than others. Since then, a number of children in the school have received government testing, through the choice of the parents, and are now benefitting from extra exam time, scribes and free resources.

Anyone wishing to work in development should be prepared to get their hands dirty. It’s not possible to help people by appealing to their needs without meeting them, seeing their life or listening to the things that matter to them. The process of really understanding the needs of a community cannot be carried out in a few days as a period of time is required to build up the relationships which facilitate honest and genuine conversations.  After All, people are proud. You wouldn’t tell a total stranger the things that keep you up all night such as the worries you have about your children’s future or your inability to pay bills, so why should those that are poor or uneducated?

Sometimes, I believe people who work in development get so wrapped up in the business plan, the models and the jargon, that they can lose sense the most important part of the project process: the people that they are trying to help in the first place.  People are not cookies, and one shape does not fit all. Social enterprise and human centred design, with hands on research as well as implementation is, in my view, the only way forward.

About the Author:
Amy Watson, IDEX Fellow Manager, India

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