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Augmenting autonomy and agency through innovative designs

Empowering communities as well as designers through embedding autonomy is not enough. One must also have agency to use that autonomy for reciprocal and responsible designs for inclusive social development. Autonomy is the freedom to act. Agency is the willingness to use that freedom. Inclusive development implies technological, institutional and cultural solutions that are accessible and available to those social segments which are otherwise often left out from the developmental gains. The social exclusion may take place because of the people being disadvantaged due to difficult terrain or other spatial, social, sectoral, seasonal/temporal, skill and structural conditions. Innovative solutions can overcome these barriers or bottlenecks by blending empathy, engagement, frugality, flexibility and fellowship or mutuality.

Design thinking has many times suffered from too little time being spent on understanding the unmet and unarticulated needs of the economically poor or otherwise disadvantaged people like elderly, or special need people. This tendency of saving on the cost of defining needs has costed other disciplines of social development a great deal. So called rapid rural appraisal or (RRA) or assessment has led to numerous costly errors in delivering improved solutions. The pace of development would not have been so slow otherwise. It is not always true that people know what they really need. No small farmer had ever demanded the dwarf wheat plants which led to green revolution. They wanted increase in the yields but through which kind of plant or crop design, they were not sure about. It was a supply side intervention which led to change in local perceptions and preferences. Designers have a special responsibility to expand and enrich the repertoire of local communities and young innovators. Grassroots innovators may also not know always numerous other pathways of addressing local needs. How can design paradigm be transformed so that the designers and also local community or individual innovators or affected people including children can mutually learn and explore together the solutions that convert autonomy into agency. People as well as provider designers don’t stop at being just aware of what is to be done but also extend their responsibility by becoming actively involved in co-creating those solutions. One of the key arguments in this paper is about reverse mentoring. Can reciprocal learning imply adult designers learning what to design from young children? Can children or disadvantaged communities mentor designers in cutting through the clutter and understanding the pain points through their simple and sincere empathetic eyes? Creativity workshops and contest in every Shodhyatra-week long learning walks, have revealed a rich under-appreciated potential of learning through the eyes of children. That why Gupta (2006) has argued that local communities and now even children should not be seen as sink of advice and assistance but also as a source of ideas and innovations.

Democratic dividend not being harnessed enough by designers. The younger people are assertive, aspirant and also articulate. Recently, out of 380,000 plus ideas received by NIF under INSPIRE-MANAK program of DST, GOI, more than seventy seen per cent were from under-privileged categories. Which design-thinking group ever talked to such children? When have we made designing products (leave Honey Bee Network institutions aside) based on such ideas a part of curriculum or developmental priority.

It is important therefor that we redefine the framework of design thinking gaining popularity among engineering and other technical institutions. We stop replicating the weaknesses of the concept. Spending pennies and seconds on finding needs and hours and years on meeting them will not address the developmental needs of India. We will have to learn to walk through the communities, schools and workshops to learn, listen, and leverage the ideas from the children and the ground.

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