What is participatory design? On-ground lessons from Amaravati

by Swati Janu

Terms like ‘human centered design’ and ‘user feedback’ have become much used in development projects today. While this is good news as it marks a move towards more participatory processes, a closer look reveals that these terms might often not be understood entirely. In their 2018 report on the Smart Cities Mission, the Housing and Land Right Network wrote that many cities have “largely utilized online web portals, social media, and mobile text messaging services to gauge citizens’ priorities” for stakeholder consultations. Those without digital access are left out in such processes and participation becomes limited to a few.

Through my engagement with the Andhra Pradesh Capital Regional Development Authority over the last year, I have seen their stakeholder consultations translate into a creative and rigorous process of direct engagement with the communities they are working for. While other Smart City projects in Amaravati have focused on the upcoming developments for the new city, their project has been unique for its focus on the farmers and other local inhabitants in the existing villages. The strength of the team has been its interdisciplinary nature, where a sociologist led the project on designing anganwadis and a physiotherapist on building health centers. These project leads worked closely with the architectural and engineering teams within their department, while interacting consistently on-ground with the various stakeholders involved - from users to service providers to community leaders across 25 villages. The on-ground network of local field coordinators in every village have formed the backbone of the project by facilitating hundreds of focus group discussions and community meetings.

I have had the opportunity to work with the team and guide them on participatory methodologies, capacity enhancement and development of a monitoring and evaluation strategy. The tools and templates that I have also used to teach Social Design at the Ambedkar University in Delhi were shared with the APCRDA team. The team adopted these remarkably quickly and customised them to their own context to understand the needs and aspirations of the stakeholders involved. Simple red and green cards were provided to government school students to enable them to vote for the kind of change they would like to see in their schools. They were then encouraged to draw how they would like their school to be. These were not seen as mere drawing exercises but the drawings were then meticulously analysed by the APCRDA team to understand key issues faced by the students such as lack of interconnectivity of spaces or their aspirations such as more play spaces. Mapping and ranking different activities across the schools helped them identify overlooked issues such as the lack of gender sensitive play spaces for girls despite availability of sports grounds.

In the case of the anganwadis, focus group discussions with the angwanwadi workers helped the team understand that segregation of spaces for different activities could address most of their challenges. These discussions were held down to the level and detail of the materials and involved several visits to the same groups. As an example, the workers said they needed a space that was easy to maintain and could be cleaned daily by simply throwing a bucket of water on the floor, which helped the team identify the local stone that could be used.

User feedback for design development forms an important part of the CITIIS program which became a huge challenge due to Covid19. The APCRDA team tried finding a way around this with the help of their local facilitators who set up video calls between the architects in office and stakeholder groups on ground while observing physical distancing norms. As the project moves towards its implementation stage, I believe that their efforts in engaging with the users and local community will help not just in achieving the envisioned long term impact but also in smooth operations and maintenance. People gradually begin to take ownership and leadership of projects which have taken them on board from the start as equal stakeholders, and not just handed down to them. Participatory design is not just a social responsibility, it also makes economic sense.

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