Participatory Design: Community Architecture approach by Design Jatra

As the world moves ahead with innovation-led design thinking, often designers forget to embrace the core values of human-centred design. Every design process involves an early survey and post-research evaluation that includes the design team’s interaction with the user of the project. However, designers turn a blind eye while their work is in progress i.e when the ideas are evolving, they start thinking in isolation. This gap in user-centred design thinking is crucial to fill in.

Thus, we cue participatory design.

Picture Source- Design Jatra

Participatory design is an approach that opens the design process to bring the stakeholders front and centre in the design strategy. It is also known as “collaborative design”, and “co-design”, It encompasses tactics useful in problem discovery and subsequent ideation where the end-user takes an active role in co-designing. This comprehension of how someone would tackle challenges directly brings to light new insights from their experiences. This new information informs the designer on where to focus their efforts most to propose a more practical solution.

Design Jatra is a socio-architectural practice in Maharastra, India, that takes inspiration from traditional architecture and experiments to evolve it to today’s needs. They emphasize the engagement of local communities to sensitise the stakeholder's involvement in their design process.

What is participatory design?

There is a lot of potential in a collective of people. People have been collaborating with like-minded individuals to design and resolve complex socio-political and planning related issues, even before centralized government systems were in place. At the core of these collaborative processes are the collective knowledge base and a large pool of shared experiences. Our country’s centralized government also recognizes the power of the collective in its official framework and has empowered such collectives in many realms of governance. The Panchayati Raj system is one such example.

Picture Source- Design Jatra

Participatory design is a process that is rooted in the strength of these collectives. It relies heavily on the will of individuals to come together to resolve mundane and complex issues which they face as a group. The process aims at empowering each individual of the collective to take ownership of the issue at hand and take steps towards its resolution.

The outcome of the process arrives through intense discussions and deliberation. Because the decisions are taken by the people, in short, the stakeholders of the project, there is a sense of ownership towards the outcome. The design process yields much more grounded outcomes. Rather than an external entity taking decisions for the people of a particular context, the outcomes of such design processes are very much rooted in the local ethos.

It is a way of democratizing design and planning processes. In this process, the designer becomes part of the collective. A designer’s contribution to the collective is that of an able facilitator.  As designers, we can creatively direct the collective discussion towards an apt conclusion. We also act as the source of globalized information at the local collective level.

How does Design Jatra look at the participatory design process?

As a practice, Design Jatra has always looked at itself as a facilitator of design and not as a designing organization. Especially while designing for communities. Design Jatra engages with communities at various levels to tap into the vast knowledge pool of the collective and its immense ability to resolve complex issues at the grassroots level.

Picture Source- Design Jatra

Participation could happen at various scales. As a practice, we have had participatory processes to address efficient resource planning and utility at the village level. We have also engaged in a participatory discussion with the village self-help groups about employment generation plans. On a more intimate scale, we have had participatory discussions with beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana to best decide the techniques that they can use for the construction of their own houses. At the same time, we have also designed community spaces like a Samaaj mandir, or a community hall, through this process of participatory design. No project of the practice is complete before taking design inputs from the local master masons and craftsmen.

Picture source- Design Jatra
Picture Source- Design Jatra

The process has never failed. Complex issues like unemployment, lack of funds, resource scarcity and lack of government will are resolved with a couple of discussions with the community. The need is to be open to solutions and not to enter the discussion with a bias. The discussion might just end up in a decision that one as a designer might not approve of, but that’s what is best for the community as a whole. The designer’s skill lies in their neutrality.

How does one execute a project in a participatory manner?

Participatory design is an act of efficient communication. And for that communication to be fruitful, the designer and the community should trust each other. Trust building processes are very much a part of the designing process. As a practice, we begin participatory processes with trust-building games. It could be a simple model on which villagers are asked to locate their own homes. Or a map of the village which the villagers make in the village square. The idea of the exercise is to put forth the intent of the project. This step determines the course of action for the future steps of the process. The collective, including the designer, should be very clear of each other’s intentions and aspirations. It is only then that the collective can make effective decisions.

Picture Source- Design Jatra

A lot of times, the trust-building happens via entities that have worked in the village for a long duration and hence have gained the trust of the villagers. Hence the first attempt should be to locate such entities. They could be NGOs, local village leaders, individuals who have been taking an active part in village politics etc.

Once the trust-building step is achieved, the collective has to be made aware of its strengths as a group. Discussions are facilitated in a manner that the collective feels empowered to take its own decisions. Eg. When designing homes for a particular community in local technique, we have to make the community aware of the strengths of their techniques first. If we are developing an employment generation plan for the village youth, we first have to make the younger generation aware of the employment providing potential of their village.

The final step is to directly or indirectly target the problem at hand. A lot of visual cues could be planned. Models, videos, toys and many more could be efficient visual cues. Eg. When talking about a development plan for a community, the best thing would be to work on a model with the community in their village square. While designing a cost-effective housing typology for a beneficiary of the Pradhan mantra Aws Yojana, the best approach would be to design and make a model of the house in front of the beneficiary and then to cost it with the beneficiary, the master mason, the village elders etc.

As designers, we need to pre-plan the process, prepare the visual cues, keep the discussions grounded and make sure everyone voices their opinion and all the stakeholders are represented in the process.

The outcome of the process is thus never seen as an alien solution “offered” by some external entity. It’s a design that the stakeholders have arrived at through a process in which they are all equally involved. Hence, there is a deep sense of belonging and ownership of the design.

For a country as large as India, Participatory processes could revolutionize the way we see the design, planning, policy framework and on-ground implementation. It is high time we democratize our design process.

Check out more about Design Jatra from their website

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