Sandhya Naidu Janardhan of the Curry Stone Design Collaborative speaking at the 2019 Fortune Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore.
Stefen Chow for Fortune
By Robert Horn
March 15, 2019

When Sandhya Naidu Janardhan was tasked with redesigning public housing in the Indian megacity of Mumbai, she had no existing surveys or data to draw on in order to determine what type of design would best improve the lives of the people who live there.

Without data or studies to work with, the designer took a simpler approach: She decided to go and talk to the residents.

Janardhan, who is the managing director of the Curry Stone Design Collaborative, needed a window into the thinking of the people who lived there. Curry Stone is dedicated to using design for social change. After countless conversations, “I thought it might be possible to make some changes,’’ she said.

Design thinking usually requires the designer to consider the needs of the end user first. Social impact design is similar, but goes one step further: the designer needs to empathize with people he or she is trying to help. Gaining an understanding of the people you are trying to help, however, can be time consuming, Janardhan said. Yet, without it, success would be unlikely.

During her visits, Janardhan noticed that the families kept their meager rundown apartments extremely clean. She often found herself eating on the floors with the residents and she thought nothing of it because they were spotless. Outside the apartments, however, in the grim lanes and warrens, that trash and filth had mounted. “India’s trash problem is something you see in the public domain, in public spaces,’’ she said.

As a pilot project, she organized some of the residents to clean up one lane. If they could succeed in one, they could then clean others. Before long, the whole neighborhood might be more livable.

When the residents finished cleaning their lane, they celebrated. But when Janardhan returned a few weeks later to expand the effort, the lane was filthy again. It wasn’t us, the residents told the designer. It was the residents on the other side of the lane. They had come from a different village and they were bad people, they said. “It was classic blame game,’’ Janardhan said.

Yet it also taught the designer a lesson. While she was able to put herself in the shoes of the public housing residents she worked with, she hadn’t learned enough about the community as a whole.

Others might have given up on the project. Janardhan’s view, however, is that the solution would be to expand her circle of empathy to more public housing residents. More empathy not less is the key, she believes, when designing for social impact.

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.

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