I, like several hundreds or even thousands of other school students, freshly passed out of 12th grade decided to pursue an engineering degree, just like almost every other person in town.
You might call it as the law of precedents. Your neighbour would have pursued an engineering degree. Your social circles, and their relatives are full of engineers, so you automatically think engineering is something. Nowadays, even your housemaid or the Uber driver who drops you to office might probably be a qualified engineer who might have probably passed his B. Tech in flying colors too.
If orange is the new black, then engineering is the new 13th degree, meant to be taken after 12th. Atleast thats what it meant to me. As a precedent, it was much easier to take this step without any mental effort, no need to question the raison d etre, or the existence of life to take up this decision. You just get into it, like all others. Oh, so convenient.
There was this personal thirst for diversity and variance which I was deeply trying to explore, even though being a part of this engineering monoculture. Of course, there was this diverse world of semiconductors, robotics, and microelectronics, but where were the debates on the grander questions on life?
Of humanities, of public policy, of politics or even theology.
Our engineering college (NIT Trichy) was devoid of that specific intellectual atmosphere you would normally find in an university which has courses across disciplines (such as JNU/Ashoka etc). Oh, how I dreamt of discussing these topics over chai. The evening snack which I had nevertheless, was bereft of such conversations. In a way, we are what our experiences are, and I certainly wanted my share of experiences to be much richer. Who wouldn’t want to?
That takes me to a concept introduced by an obscure biologist by name Jakob Uexkull in 1909 by name umwelt. A simple (but often overlooked) expression of different animals in the same ecosystem picking up different environmental signals. For the blind and deaf world of tick, the important signals are temperature. For the black ghost knifefish, it is the electrical fields. For the echo-locating bat, its air-compression waves.
The interesting part about this is that each organism by mistake assumes his or her umwelt as the absolute reality. Which makes me wonder, would a day come when we stop and think of experiences which are beyond our imagination? The unknown unknowns.
I wanted a richer and broader realm of enriched experiences. Thats when Jagriti Yatra happened to me in the middle of such a philosophical examination of life. An 8000 kilometer national odyssey covering 15 states across India covering social enterprises encouraging people to start the same. It was around the same time, I was reading Gandhi’s autobiography of My Experiments With Truth.
What got my attention was how Gandhi hadn’t just straight away gone ahead to enter the Indian political scene after setting foot in India. Coming from South Africa, he needed some time to understand what India means, and get a comprehensive share of perspectives. Through a series of countless train journeys across the villages of India he was finally able to enter the political scene. The aphorism he arrived at during the same odyssey was also interesting — The heart of India truly lies in its villages.
I could draw a lot of parallelism between what Gandhi spoke and what Jagriti Yatra wanted to emulate by travelling across rural India with talented young individuals. That really set the stage for me. The Jagriti Yatra had begun. For me the Jagriti Yatra was the first real hit. I had only been reading about such personalities in newspapers or books and this was the first brush with reality. I was 21. The conversations there shaped me. Be it the kashmiri activist, or the organic farmer from Sikkim, the gender rights activist or the countless other social entrepreneurs I had got a chance to meet. My umwelt started expanding, and the monoculture I experienced as a boring engineering graduate started fading away. If soul-searching started with a precedent, the Yatra was the inception.
I was never really the same after the journey which I realised after getting back to college. Naturally before you are graduating from college, you are faced with two options. One was to sit for placements and get a good ‘package’, or get a good GRE score and apply for Masters in top notch universities. The yatra made me undergo a state of limbo. I didnt want to do either.
A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions. It was never the same.
I opted out of company placements and also higher studies and wanted to ‘explore’ instead. There was never the third option, I created one.
The soul searching first took me to work with a startup in Mumbai under a freelance contract to explore and understand what the fuss about ‘design’ was about. I was involved in the design and development of a product which was intended for the villagers from off grid areas to generate electricity while walking. It was around the same time, the rural engineer thing caught my interest from the Three Idiots movie. When Phunsuk Wangdu or Sonam Wangchuck had already become a pop culture phenomenon.
I was stuck in my own mind-babble.
How good would it be if we could apply our knowledge to rural areas, to the most backward areas, to the places where our attention is needed the most?
My background in engineering, my interest and passion in design, and my vision in the development sector — In the most rural areas, it all interweaved in an ikigai manner. And it fit what I wanted to explore, as a means of soul searching. As my soul searching was driven not towards specialisation (I was of the opinion that specialisation was for insects), but to find an ideal intercourse of different interests and find a unique niche.
The sweet spot.
As only you could be the only you.
This gave rise to my first point of inflection developing this product — As designers we are making products according to the demands and wishes of people, but most of the cases, the innovation fails to grasp the socio-economic factors, the highly contextual factors. Why is the user’s opinion not valued that much? Why cant we involve them more in this design process? How do you make them participate?
Didnt really know the terminology of such a design process back then, but came to know the name, anyways.
That was what it was called as. To involve users from ideation to reality. Although this school of thought has been existing for quite some decades now, I felt the richness of the scope of such a process, particularly for low income communities where they could immensely benefit. My main concern was with these posh high-clientele designers sitting in ivory towers who design for the rural areas, without failing to let go of their assumptions and pre-conceptions leading to shabby designs of low value.
To explore this process, and realise its potential, I took up various rural expeditions. To understand what living and breathing the village air feels and looks like. The first stop was Uravu Eco Links, an NGO based out of Wayanad, Kerala. They have been involved in creating livelihood options for bamboo artisans, and a brief volunteering role at their village, taught me a lot on how artisans worked and how design could create livelihood options for them.
The second stop took me to Barefoot College, an NGO based out of Tilonia, Rajasthan. I was very much interested to understand how co-creation (an important aspect of generative design) could be used to build rural communities. Designing for them, and being built with them. That was the intention there.
How Barefoot College happened, particularly for such an objective was partly due to my previous visit to Barefoot College as a part of Jagriti Yatra (again). I had come across the Solar Mamas program which involved in training rural women from various countries in solar education, so that they could go back and electrify their own off-grid villages.
I was keen on working with the indian group of solar mamas, to come up with a contextual solution for their own problem that they face in their Tilonia village.
After sharing lunches with them, bonding with them and becoming one amongst them and even sharing some marwadi jokes with them, I was able to understand certain issues which they were facing. One amongst them was the lack of electricity in the toilets, owing to which they still defecated in the open during night time. Together, we came up with a one-of-a-kind generator which uses the sheer weight of an heavy object to generate electricity for a brief period of time. I was so fascinated! It was very rare for rural women to be trained in handling power tools and equipments, to work closely with them in designing the device.
The device was not perfect, or fool proof. It still had a lot of challenges, but it created a huge boost on what they could achieve. What was even more surprising was that, as a designer myself, my role in this whole design process was very much limited. It was similar to an instructor of an opera waving his stick to orchestrate the music coming out of this whole design cycle.
That day, I was able to see live, what I had earlier read in books what generative design is all about. It worked.
A conviction emerged.
Ending this on a good note, and finally making a move back to my hometown from Tilonia village, Rajasthan, when I saw all of the villagers and looking at me with a sense of acknowledgement, I felt a strange sensation — Love not from one person, or one family. Love from a community itself. An ethereal presence of love shared by all the members together. It was indeed a strange feeling.
Do the villagers shower such love to the city-dwellers almost always the same way? The Gandhi’s aphorism struck me again — The heart of India truly lies in its villages. After having come back to my home town, with a lot of thoughts and rich experiences in generative design, I came across this news article on Krishna Rajagopal, an engineering graduate working in rural Maharashtra to bring about a social transformation by involving children in solving community problems. It struck a resonant chord with me. Krishna’s own story of being an engineer by degree, and applying his skills for social good by training the young children in building innovations. It really did.
My own explorations were seeming to come to a mutual convergence with what he had done. Here I was trying to co-create solutions together with women groups, and here was this guy working with children and paving the way for such a social transformation. Through a conversation with him, the implications of such a vision blew my mind leading me to work with him on the same lines.
How vastly rich the experience would be when children involve in real life challenges? When problem solving is something we do all day everyday as adults, why cant children be taught such skills especially in relation with the real life context? What if children come up with innovations that could help bolster the community?
Children are exceptionally creative and look at complex problems in a very simple manner. Centuries old problems facing the villagers could be solved in a simple and innovative manner if children are involved in some way or form. Could children be the frontier of social innovation?
I took up the SBI Youth for India Fellowship, a rural developmental fellowship and started living in Lobhi, a tribal village from Bhandara region of Maharashtra for another 13 months.
Through this journey, I was able to accumulate specific knowledge (as how Naval Ravikant puts it) with regards to design, education and co-creation. All important keywords to me right now, as we run an organisation along these lines. Specific knowledge.
Specific knowledge gained out of curiosity and passion, rather than what is hot right now.
Specific knowledge in an industry (design education) where I want to play the long term game with long term people.
Working with children through this fellowship, setting up innovation labs and working with a brilliant founding team has led me with further conviction to take this pet project forward in a more full fledged manner.
That was all because of soul searching. Nothing was planned, nothing was scheduled weeks in advance with gantt charts and project management tools. Things happened on the fly.
I admit that there was no clarity about the future then. Future almost, and always is uncertain. But there was a sort-of clarity that emerged out of this obfuscation and when we look back, like how Steve Jobs puts it, the dots can only be connected backward.
Outcomes for sure are not predestined in such soul-searching, but wouldn’t the process be more satisfying than the outcome?
In Albert Camus’ philosophy of the absurd, there is a comparison with man’s futile search for meaning, unity and clarity with the situation of Sisyphus, a figure straight out of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll again. The essay concludes, “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”. In a parallel world, are we craving for an imagined utopia at the top of the mountain summit, while the whole happiness ordeal is in the art of climbing the freaking mountain itself?
To me, the Mount of Sissyphus was analogous to my own struggle trying to achieve a grander or even unrealistic vision through the organisation which we founded; which is happiness in itself.
Coming back to the question of what 2 years of soul searching could do to you, the answer is simple if we ask the right question.
Would trading job security and a grander paycheck for specific knowledge and soul-in-the-game be a promising option?
Only time will tell. But what soul-searching definitely does is to trigger the Why questions more than the What and How questions, and this leads to a very interesting journey.
Once you get hit by the outside world into the world of unknown unknowns, there is no turning back.