Human centred design in rural India

ANU Student Liz Cowling (3rd from right) with her summit team
Thursday 5 April 2018

My name is Liz Cowling and I am a Bachelor of Engineering student, majoring in Electronics and Communication systems. In February 2018, I spent 2 weeks in Tamil Nadu, in the south of India on an Engineers Without Borders Design Summit.

The program began in the city of Madurai with 30 students split into three groups to experience Indian culture, language and Human Centred Design workshops. An afternoon scavenger hunt had us find our bearings and break the ice, while a visit to the 2,500 year old Meenakshi temple showed us the heart of the city and Indian culture.

Each of our three groups then headed off for 5 days to separate rural villages where we were truly immersed in the authentic living conditions and culture of the village people. I was lucky enough to spend my community visit in the village of Siruvalai, a half hour drive south of Madurai city.

Siruvalai is home to approximately 1000 people, surrounded by vast rice fields, banana and coconut trees. The people were friendly and welcoming and while we often didn’t speak each other’s language we learnt to communicate, bonding over meal preparation and delicious Indian food. It was in the village that we had the opportunity to work through the Human Centred Design lifecycle, stepping through the discovery, empathy, ideation and prototyping phases.

With the opportunity to use translators to interview several community members, we could keep them at the centre of our work.

The experience taught me the importance of needs based design and using locally sourced materials in a humanitarian engineering context. It also highlighted the importance of system life cycles and why simple and easily understood solutions are important in such a context. The experience definitely took me out of my comfort zone, which allowed me to truly develop on a personal level as well as in a systems engineering capacity. I met so many new and fascinating people on the trip and made some great friends.

One thing I will take away from the experience that will be with me forever is the incredible generosity and caring nature of my home stay mum ‘Rasi’, she did her absolute best to make sure we were comfortable and well fed while we were in her home.

I can now leave behind any anxiety that I used to have for jumping into unknown situations. The experience is like nothing else, and I recommend if you’re interested in Humanitarian Engineering or want to see what Systems Engineering can look like in another context, go and do a Humanitarian Design Summit. You won’t regret it!

Liz Cowling is a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) student at the ANU Research School of Electrical, Energy and Materials Engineering. Liz attended the Engineers Without Borders Summit in India, supported by The New Colombo Plan Mobility Program



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