Inspired by the opportunity to implement distributed energy networks in rural India to create sustainable energy solutions and empower rural development, this project is an inquiry into initiating this opportunity through a design approach. During two trips to India, I locally designed a tool to gain insights into the feasibility of the vision. The tool enabled energy sharing in one village and involved local stakeholders.
Starting the energy system in Sankuhi.
Energy is the engine for development, especially rural development. India is a country with more than 65% of its population living in rural villages. These villages currently have very limited energy supply. If the grid is at all available, energy supply is very unstable. Therefore development is limited. To meet current energy demands in India, India cannot rely on top down solutions. Local energy generation and concepts for distributed energy networks must be considered to ensure rural development. Read more about it in the project report link.
Validation in context
Designing in the Netherlands for villages in India is not easy. The lack of context comes with the risk to stay abstract and vague. In different stages during the project I tried to find some kind of context which could validate my vision at that point in time to improve its veraciousness.
After the initial empathic research in India, the vision on how the framework should be visualized and what it should contain, was validated with some business process design experts. To fill in the details of the framework, I was advised to work two ways, test the framework in design, and design to find new insights to fill the framework. The lack of a context to design for, at that time it wasn't simple to do so. The lack of proper validation made me to reframe my role in this project.
I reframed my role as a designer; starting from the question whether we, western researchers and designers, should meddle in a tribal culture in India. The reasoning led me to conclude we do have a responsibility and should design in an empowering matter, initiate the vision through local entrepreneurship. Again, I found a context to validate this reasoning in the 'base of the pyramid' [Prahalad, 2004][Hart, 2007] research field. My thoughts were similar to the general vision of the base of the pyramid and homegrown development [Easterly, 2006] research. Again, the context helped me to improve my vision by showing what were the difficulties yet and showed me an opportunity for my design approach.
Designing in India with direct validation in the context
During the design phase in India, the context was there all around me. This allowed me to design much more concrete solutions and propositions. Everything I did in the Netherlands had to stay open ended because I was unable to validate the users' and stakeholders' reaction to the visions. The level in which I was able to validate in context influenced the abstraction of my results.
Two iterations of the lamp designed and build in India, click to see a list of the components in the final lamp
The trip to India, with access to the real context, was necessary to concretize my ideas into a concrete proposal. Also the lack of proper validation in the early phases of the project made me to move on with different approaches. To reach a valid concrete result in a design project, it should be prevented to work too long without validation in some context (abstract or concrete).
Reflective Transformative Design
The reflective transformative design cycle [Hummels & Frens, 2009] shows the importance of validating a vision through analysis and concretizing in context. Initial design proposals, like the heat transportation bag link presented after the proposal, were naive because the vision that led to them, the necessity of a distributed energy network, had to much aspects in it that were never properly validated in context (people in the villages). Before designing a concrete tool to enable energy sharing, first it had to be seen whether the concept of sharing energy would work in the first place.
Research and design in a different culture
Initially, the indian culture was seen as a starting point to enrich the design vision through the use of a framework. The limited time made it impossible to grasp the culture and frame it in three categories (user, business and technology) link. The Indian culture shifted from inspiration for the vision to part of the context in the design process. The design goal remained in the field of development, technological and business approach (B.o.P.) which through validation in the context was inherently mixed with the Indian culture.
The tools enabled the formation of a system which I was able to observe and gain user insights from
The vision was translated in the context into a tool, a set of small lamps and solar panel for one person in India. This allowed me to observe how the concrete translation of part of the vision (sharing of energy, connecting supply and demand in one village) is handled in the villages; in the culture. I could observe the parts of Indian culture that influenced the way the sharing system was formed. I don't know how family life, traditions, motivations, casts, etc. work, I don't know how I should start to share energy in a village, but I was able to observe how the end users do it in their culture through this tool.
Designer as enabler
The lamp was a tool to gain insight in the users and culture, how they would organize and adopt an energy sharing system. It was not an industrial product which brings light. The tool did enable a energy sharing network in one village, though very small, it taught me about the opportunities and difficulties for a energy sharing network. Moreover, it showed me the potential of local stakeholders. Especially the involvement of educational institutes proved to be very beneficial (see MoU link) . Which started as a tool to research the cultural reaction to my vision, resulted in a fully adopted lighting scheme in one village which is still running and maintained by stakeholders I found and educated in the process of building the tool. My design approach and methods enabled the concrete application of a vision where a lot of researchers are working on but which is hardly ever concretized. A designer can be a valid contribution to research as a bridge between abstract and concrete.