Tavish Fenbert – ‘Designing Specially for Villages’

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Tavish Fenbert is a student of Mechanical Engineering at Northeastern University. This article was featured in Millennium Post - the leading News house based out of Delhi and publishing print in Delhi & Kolkata.

Designing technology for social acceptance is a monumental task that cannot be easily done from the comfort of a traditional urban space, elaborates Northeastern Student Tavish Fenbert.

The Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA) at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) is committed to developing appropriate technology—devices and systems—for rural Indians. The CTARA method for technology design involves a combination of field visits to rural areas and on-campus research and lab work. The most difficult challenge T&D engineers face is ensuring that the technological innovations they design are "appropriate" for use by rural populations. To be considered "appropriate" for a rural population, technology must meet the following three criteria: (1) technical proficiency, (2) economic acceptance, and (3) social acceptance. If a device or system is missing any of these three criteria, the innovation will not be implemented and thus will not be successful in improving the lives of rural Indians.

Designing technology for social acceptance is most important and most difficult to satisfy among the three criteria for appropriate rural technology. This criterion determines if the end-user population will entertain a new technology's introduction; without it, the technology is doomed before it is given a chance. No matter how economically beneficial or technically sound, if the end-users do not like a device or system, they will not use it. Determining the requirements for social acceptance in a village setting are not as straightforward as conducting an economic or technical analysis of a new technology. Accordingly, field visits to rural areas in the CTARA program are a crucial component of designing technology for social acceptance because they provide an opportunity to learn about the thought patterns and traditions of the end-user population, which are often different from those of an engineer. The hallmark field visit of the CTARA curriculum is a nine-week village stay that each of thirteen pairs of students takes following their first year of classes at IITB.

During field visits to villages, it is essential to learn as much about the values of a society as possible despite often unpredictable logistical conditions. It is necessary to capture this knowledge during each visit in a variety of ways, including asking questions, focused discussions, taking measurements, and observing silently. Conversing with rural Indians can lead to unexpected comments and inquiries; learning to manage different types of discussions without anxiety is an important skill for interactions with rural populations who may have different cultural values. Consolidating and documenting lessons learned from field visits is also important because of the limited amount of time that a designer can spend in a village. These values must be captured for future reference to keep the T&D designer grounded in the reality of adhering to village social customs. Observing and documenting village social values first-hand is the best way to learn how to design technology for a specific community.
Another important skill for T&D engineers is the ability to build relationships with people of widely varying backgrounds. The traditions of rural Indians around the country vary greatly by location and certainly contrast with those traditions regularly witnessed in urban areas of the country. Learning to interact appropriately—the foundation of a solid relationship—can help a T&D engineer infer knowledge of village dynamics. This knowledge is invaluable in understanding what the reaction may be to the introduction of a new technology into a village. In May 2017, I joined two postgraduate T&D students of Indian descent for a portion of their nine-week stay in a village near Pune, Maharashtra. In addition to the village resource evaluation and demographic studies the IITB students undertook, we attempted to introduce masala-making (spice roasting and grinding) as a women's self-help group (SHG) livelihood activity in the village. Women's SHGs around the country often engage in activities such as papad-making or pickle-making in order to promote economic livelihood among members of the group. The introduction of masala-making in this village was ultimately unsuccessful, and analysis of this failure reveals the complex social fabric that must be rewoven to implement a new device or scheme into the lives of villagers. The village SHG women voiced many concerns about starting a masala-making operation—ranging from capital investment to quality assurance—but these were simply a cover for avoiding the underlying social imbalance this business would cause in the village. During the meeting, logical economic and technical explanations of the masala-making business plan were provided to the women, but they were not convinced. Clearly, the business risk associated with the activity was not the most important issue; the idea of forming a self-sufficient company disagreed with traditional gender roles in the village. Village women do not have as much experience with sales, material procurement, or accounting as their husbands. Thus, the women and their husbands can lack confidence in the SHG's ability to run a business and take appropriate financial risks. The potential for profit is not worth the perceived threat to the women's safety and integrity from interfacing with external business partners. It takes time and continuing education to build this confidence in the village women and their husbands. Only once this confidence and knowledge are instilled can an SHG successfully run a village business. These underlying reasons for rejecting the masala-making business proposal were not stated outright, rather they had to be inferred from observations of the SHG meeting. Observing carefully the women in the SHG allowed a window into the unspoken thoughts about the social acceptance of an independent female-run business in the village. The proceedings of the meeting gave an indication as to who among the members is a leader, who has influence, who is well-respected, and who is trusted; in other words, who has the final say on the masala business proposal. While it is not necessary for CTARA students to place themselves into a discussion among SHG women, it is necessary for them to understand the internal workings of SHG politics so that they can make appropriate inferences from the unspoken parts of the conversation. Relationship-building skills and knowledge of village social customs are crucial to making these key inferences. A system or technology designed for an Indian village will be useful if and only if it is largely conceived in the midst of village living, surrounded by the unique social, economic, geographical situation of that community. An SHG-run pickle-making business that works in one village may face harsh resistance in another setting a few kilometers away. Thus, extensive research into the needs and values of a village is essential to designing a product or system if it is to have any chance of being introduced. Designing technology for social acceptance is a monumental task that cannot be easily done from the comfort of a traditional urban space. CTARA works to bridge this gap by sending students for extended field stays in Indian villages. The attempt to introduce masala-making as a village SHG livelihood activity had little chance to be successful because the idea was conceived on campus at IITB. It was an idea from outside the village, lacking the flexibility to be shaped to meet the needs and restrictions of the community. Traditional village culture favors the status quo. And it is strong. Herein lies the challenge of designing for rural India.