Monday, May 5, 2014

Design, Meet Gender Violence

Design, meet Gender violence
// This is a work in progress //


In this essay, I propose that “design thinking” can be very useful in framing a response to the challenge we face in India and elsewhere, of the violence against women (VAW) . In India in particular, VAW continues to be a vicious problem (often referred to as “wicked problem” due to its nature and something that is so hard to solve) that confronts a young, emergent nation. Considering the age and demographics of India, we are an emergent yet a nation that have largely young population. What are the causes? There is no single answer to this that can be addressed and a response can thus be framed around it. While the causes may be many and not all of them well explained, two related problems exist. First, we need careful yet novel systematic research to find out the root causes and second, address the issue at the same time. Finally, as time is of the essence here, it is also necessary to take urgent action to protect the lives and dignity of thousands of women. An approach that combines the power of systematic inquiry and possiblity of action is essential and is quite possible. This is the promise of design thinking.
Any approach to solving this problem requires an “out of the box” approach. In this essay, I’d like to briefly introduce how designers think and share ideas as to how we might address the issue of gender violence from a designer’s perspective. In the next few paragraphs, I’d like to briefly introduce the concepts of design thinking, and describe a few scenarios as to how we may address gender violence.

What is Design Thinking? What does it mean?

Design thinking refers to a human-centred, hands-on, pragmatic approach (the principle being “show, don’t tell”) to frame a response to a defined problem. This term and the concept is borrowed from how expert designers work through a problem from the users’ perspective, but the usage is almost universal, as it is possible to apply the concepts of design thinking to bear on any problem, including societal problems to address them. The core element in design thinking is centred around humans and human lives. This appproach consistes of the following five elements: (1) define the problem, (2) develop empathy and insights from deeper understanding from the perspectives of people involved in the problem or challenge, (3) generate and ideate lots of solutions – some on paper, (4) build prototypes to address the key issues around the problem, and (5) finally test the solutions in real world and modify as needed. The five elements are detailed below.
// Insert here a diagram of design thinking

What are the Elements of Design Thinking? What is Human centricity?

As written above, at the heart of design thinking is human-centredness, so that human beings and their needs take the centre stage. The processes typically flow along the five stages - starting with defining the problem from different angles. The second stage is to generate deep insights and empathy building from the perspective of the stakeholders and key players. Typically, this takes the form of mapping the journey of a person who undergoes the experience of the problem that we are trying to address here – putting ourselves in the same situation of the person who is undergoing the experience and mapping the emotional states at various stages of the experience. There are other techniques as well but essentially all of them involve some form of experiential content sharing with the design team. The hard facts that are obtained from other sources and the emotional contents that are collected as part of the journey mapping and indeed other forms of inquiry (it could be in the form of actually the design team experiencing the situation, or using videography, or audio recording, or in depth interviews, indeed the creative ways to explore the emotional states is endless but all of these are highly qualitative inquiry mixed with the play of numbers) then lead the designers to devise one or other forms of prototypes of solutions. These prototypes are different forms of artefacts, or at times, these are metaphors of the solutions themselves. These metaphors are then modified and more or varied or a range of solutions in the form of prototypes are prepared. In the final stages, these prototypes or one or more preferred prototypes in collaboration with the “clients” are put into actually actionable projects or “testable solutions” and put into field tests to see how they work. This is an iterative process, meaning that these can be repeated till a point is reached where the designers working with the “clients” can reach a workable solution to the satisfaction of everyone and can successfully address the problem at hand.

What do we know about gender violence in India and what elements are missing?

Putting these concepts to the problem at hand, that of gender violence, we see that there are several pieces of information that are valuable, and at the same time, there are elements that are missing from the jigsaw puzzle.
We know the statistics of violence against women (some states are worse, perhaps some areas are worse than others, time trends and rising trends). We have documented evidence of the insensitivity of a certain class of people. We also know that there are situations where some social positions make some vulnerable to violence.
While statistics, expert based consensus, and speculations are widespread and perhaps easily available, there are other missing pieces. First, we do not know or there is not enough deep understanding how do women who have undergone violence have felt or detailed maps of their journey through the system starting before, through, and after the acts of violence against them. This mapping is not easy for a number of reasons, and there are significant ethical and difficult emotional and humanistic and legal issues around those situations. Third, we do not know the emotional states of people who perpetrate the crimes beyond knowing the crime statistics and perhaps getting a snapshot of the demographics and to some extent the mental make up of these individuals. From a human centred perspective, men who are the perpetrators of those crimes if you will have not been mapped and there is a need to understand to levels of depth as to what happens during those states only if the aim is to prevent or deter in future.

Where can we bring in the five elements of design thinking for addressing gender violence?

Each of the five elements - the definition of the problem, in-depth understanding of the empathy building process where women who have undergone in the past, where women who are at risk of gender based violence now, and possible perpetrators or the demographics that are comparable to those who have perpetrated the crimes in the past whether they undergo criminal charges and therefore imprisonment or not, there is a need to view the problem from their perspective as well. These facts and figures and emotional states will in turn lead to identification of patterns that will emerge and those, that, in turn will lead to generation of simulations or models or prototypes in the form of either metaphors or toy examples that can be built to test in artificial situations how we can prevent violence against women. Will these work? That is the million dollar question but something worth asking and field testing. If there are formative elements of workable models from the prototypes that will help or at least in the social laboratory settings, then these elements are worth keeping; else, there is a case to go back to the drawing board, or perhaps a step back to reformulate the prototype and design again.

Where to from here?

The future is not certain. As far as we know, a design approach to tackle the issue of violence against women has not been put to test in India. It is time that we put together programmes and ideas to test and see how we can collectively bring together the power of design and address this social problem.