Going to New York from India for a day-long meeting was absurd to my wife. I was excited: a global meet-up on socially responsible design; one Asian among 50 odd Americans; big names among participants, sponsors, donors and a weekend that would allow me to see the World Trade Center monument. For such a short meeting, learning was substantial: how to efficiently conduct a meeting, and how little even well-informed Americans know about dominance of the informal sector in Asian cities. If 90 percent of the buildings that get constructed do not pass through a professional architect, how can architects reflect or bring about a socially responsible outlook in their designs? My main focus and concerns were India, and Asia as a whole. To me, a wider definition of Socially Responsible Design would embrace:

  • The client groups that are served (are poor, low income and those un-serviced by formal markets excluded?)
  • The quality and reach of design output (for mass or class?)
  • Cost and affordability (who can buy/access?)
  • Sensitivity to larger ecological/ environmental/social challenges in production, marketing, delivery processes (carbon footprint, environmental crisis, energy/ resource constraints, inequality, exclusion, waste )
  • People centeredness (sensitivity to culture, tradition, local wisdom
  • Innovation (technology, tools)
  • Approaches to design (is the approach participatory, consultative, enabling, empowering or is it more conventional- i.e., designers offering solutions from ivory towers?)
  • Market/ institutional linkages

Ways forward for socially responsible design could include

  • Rethinking and restructuring of formal education across the board, especially professional education which is alienated from the grassroots reality
  • Reorientation of mainstream professionals in all disciplines. They are confined mainly to a thin band of urban, rich, socially mobile and institutional clients
  • Development of Social Entrepreneurship in an organized, large-scale, formal, private sector (for example, in affordable housing, low cost interiors, furniture for working class clients)
  • Recognition and/or incentives or other forms of support for the large, informal/unorganized sector for ‘better’ design
  • New thrust on rural needs and markets.

Small scale but innovative efforts are happening: be that Asian Coalition of Housing Right’s Community Architect initiative or Fellowship of Ashoka Innovators for the Public or Architecture for Humanity. Focusing only on scaling up as key challenge is to see it in a limited context. Rethinking the ‘development model’ is the essence of real challenge.

Kirtee Shah is a practicing architect and is the Director of ASAG (Ahmedabad Study Action Group), a non-government organization run by concerned professionals committed to using their skills for public causes, especially slum upgrading, disaster rehabilitation and low-cost housing. Kirtee has served as housing and urbanization expert on several expert advisory groups for the Indian national and various state and local governments, as well as to UNICEF and the World Bank and the Social Housing Foundation of South Africa. He is also President of Habitat International Coalition and a member of the international board of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, a non-profit society supporting public service entrepreneurs in developing countries.

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