Design Thinking In a Mumbai slum

How the ‘Maker Culture’ can help solve social problems and create the next generation of social innovators

aditya 4

Bharat Nagar (Vashi Naka) is said to be the 2nd biggest slum in Aamchi Mumbai. The road from Chembur to Vashi Naka bus stop follows the Monorail line and is dotted by slums on either side. Bharat Nagar though, is the big one. There’s no upper limit to its development, crawling over the hill, as far as it can go, the community has expanded to take in all the people trudging in. There are the usual problems endemic to slums in Mumbai: violence , addiction (alcohol & drugs), kachra, toilets (big issue for women). These problems have existed for a long time,and are wicked problems, all tangled up with each other and no sight of where to begin to untangle them.

The locals know about these problems. They know them too well. And therein lies the catch. Living for a long time in certain conditions adds to your experience but can also adversely affect your mentality, the way you think. They have seen the worst side of everything, so they refuse to believe there could be a good side to anything. Yet these are the folks who best understand this enormous and peculiar ecosystem which exists pretty much unnoticed by the well to do of our land. Wouldn’t the locals themselves be the best people to solve these systemic social problems?

So we organized ‘Chalo Badle Chembur’. A problem solving and confidence building workshop where children from the slum would learn how to think about problems in their community in a new way, and gain confidence in their ability to think and act as a catalysts for change. The goal was to change their perceptions about everyday problems and get them to realize their potential as change makers.

The workshop itself was based on the principles of Human Centered Design, and staying true to its essence, was highly participatory and interactive. The driving question was : how do we solve social problems in our community? The kids were provided with themes like emotional/physical violence, garbage disposal, toilets, addiction and  politics. Starting with the big issues, the kids broke them down into smaller more workable chunks through a process of Affinity Diagramming and collaborative brainstorming.  

aditya story

They were then asked to dig deeper into one specific issue that they felt most connected to ( decided via a group discussion + voting, remarkably democratic) and delve into finding the root causes of the said issue. At this point they had, through discussions and drawing from their own personal experiences, built a solid understanding of the root problems, and so we got them to start thinking about solutions. What followed was an intense 30 minute brainstorming session, and it was a delight seeing the kids work. Kids who had never seen a ‘post it’ before, never mind knew of their use, were covering the walls with post its full of ideas. At the end, each group was given a template to present their idea, and the presentations came out as highly thought out, clearly understood solutions that the kids could implement in their neighborhoods. There was a beautiful freshness and clarity in their solutions, which was very humbling for a social entrepreneur like me. It reinforced my belief that people facing problems, come up with best solutions, and our job as social entrepreneurs is to support and advance those solutions. The street/ ground whatever you may call it, is where the innovation is.

As a logical next step, we are planning to do a prototyping/ making workshop with the kids. The Maker culture is fertile ground for development of the new and the creative. For the past 3 months we have been researching the lives of people in the slums, with a special focus on youth aged 15-21, and their issues with respect to education/ career/ economic advancement. Few of the biggest barriers we found that these kids face in getting decent employment are:

1) Dependence on institutions. Requirement of Qualifications, Higher education degrees, when for them, getting past 10th grade is an issue (academically as well as financially)

2) Lack of skills. Vocational as well as life skills.

3) Lack of exposure to the new and different.

aditya 3 aditya 2

The Maker culture addresses all of these barriers, it provides people with exposure to imagination & curiosity,  gets them to develop tangible (somehow I don’t like the word ‘marketable’ but you get the point) skills that can greatly brighten their career prospects, in addition to emphasizing a constructivist attitude in a supportive social environment. It can provide them with tools to act, an environment to thrive in, and a community that can mentor and guide them.

If we can get these kids to think about social problems in a new way and provide them with tools to make a change, we will be in essence creating a generation of future social innovators. And India needs social innovators. Imagine an India where all social problems are solved locally, using the spirit of Jugaad, and by the combined power of a close knit community instead of passing the buck on to the Government. Imagine an India where positive, can do attitude has replaced rampant cynicism. Imagine an India where the new is welcomed and the ability to learn is valued more than knowledge.  

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one :)

2 responses to “Design Thinking In a Mumbai slum

  1. Dear Sir, I accept your observation. But I am not agree with your all points. Bharat nagar (Vashinaka) is not the 2nd biggest slum in Aamchi Mumbai. it is different. you are indicating the word as “Aamchi Mumbai”, is that means you are trying to say all marathi peoples lives in slum area only ? Sir, I am from Bharat nagar (same place). I studied in same school, which you pictured in this page. Now, I am working in IT department. My all life I spent in the same place. so it is not that much worst as you explained.

  2. Hello Pratik

    I have heard it described as the second biggest slum in Mumbai by a few NGOs as well as locals, but I dont have any official figures to back it so I may well be wrong.

    I said ‘aamchi mumbai’ because I think of Mumbai very dearly and that phrase represents my endearment very well. I have no negative feelings towards Maharashtrians, in fact some of my best friends are Marathi.

    I loved working with the school and the people there in, and if you read again closely I havent described the slums as badly as you may have thought, only specifying the issues that were brought up during the workshop by the kids themselves, please read again and let me know. In fact I believe the people living in Bharat Nagar have tremendous potential to solve their own issues, and its one of the major points I make in this article.

    Please have another read and let me know if what I said makes sense. It is’nt my intention to be hurtful or insensitive, and I think my writing reflects that.

Join The Discussion