Friday, April 29, 2016

Climate + Change

Last month in Kolkata, India I felt the tremors of an earthquake for the first time. Since 2014, this has been the fourth or fifth time when shifting of the tectonic plates in neighbouring regions has been felt in the city. The floods that affected northern UK were unprecedented as were those that swamped Chennai closer to home. The increasing frequency of natural calamities and the visible unseasonal rise in temperature is creating a never before fervor in questions and exclamations– what is happening to the world?  It is unbelievably hot! The world is suddenly sitting and listening to what nature has to say.

When I was in UK, in a café in Norwich, I saw a map of UK that showed the imminent impact of climate change and the rise of sea level on the existence of both urban and rural settlements. The Bengal coastline is also in the red zone with many predicting that my hometown Kolkata will cease to exist because of rising sea level; or for that matter, some other factor that we have not given due importance to in the past. The crux of the matter is that we humans have changed our environment at a pace unseen of other species, bringing upon ourselves a situation where the world has to pledge to work towards a two degrees reduction in global temperature during the Paris summit last year.

A recent project I undertook was in this domain. In September last year, I worked on a project in climate change where I was responsible for research and strategy; team development; content and structure development; photography and narrative for an exhibition display. As a design researcher deeply interested in the cultural world of textiles, a project on climate change seemed like a stretch. But when James Hicks from Thinc Design said that my profile fitted what they were looking for, I got hooked. ICIMOD in collaboration with seven world-wide partners wanted to launch a new project “Climate+Change: Our Mountains, Our future” to address the problems of climate change in the Hindukush mountains region. In the following paragraphs I would like to take you through the design process followed.  

The project required me to plan an ethnography-based research in the states of Uttarakhand and one of the seven sisters in the northeast. My prior research and familiarity with northeast India was an added advantage. Findings from the field research would feed the launch exhibition at the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate change in New Delhi, barely four months from the time I was having the conversation with James. The timeline was quite tight; but not one to say no to a challenge, I decided to dive in.

Team building: Work on the project begun two months after my initial discussions, shrinking the already impossible time-span a project of this magnitude requires. Putting together my team was a relatively easy task as I was clear on what I seeking for – two film makers (Shradha Jain from Studio Clockworks and the highly recommended Anish Cherian), two assistant researchers (Moon Moon Jetley and Ankita Dhariwal) and a researcher (Priyanka Baliyan from Punkha Designs) who along with me would lead the field research and work on the text. The thread that connected all of us was that at some point in our careers we had worked on a textile research project in northeast India and that everyone understood the quality of work expected. We were also a passionate bunch, wanting to engage in meaningful design and travel to the hills! 

Left to right: Shradha, myself, Anish & Priyanka
Research Methods: While the brief was quite open, James from Thinc Design and Amy Sellmayer from ICIMOD expressed their expectations from the field research succinctly. Our aim was to gather and document stories that capture the challenges, perceptions, aspirations, and solutions that communities have come up with to adapt to the impacts of climate change in their daily lives. Participatory research tools such as seasonal maps, a day in the life of and community maps were selected to be used in the field. A semi-structured questionnaire was adapted from BBC’s Climate Asia Community Assessment Guide.  

Field research: Two multidisciplinary teams went each to the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. The places visited during November 7-16, 2015 are shown in the maps below.
Credit: Mridu Mehta

Credit: Mridu Mehta

The field research was planned in consultation with the knowledge partners of the project, our experience of the terrain and personal instinct of the team members. Personal acquaintances and colleagues from NID greatly helped with their time and resources - without it, it would have been difficult to achieve what we did.  
Outcomes: Based on the stories collected, initially two short films were to be produced. Finally, two 5-mins films, four 2-mins film and one promotional film were conceptualised and created. Content for a prototype exhibition was generated and the exhibition boards were visually designed by Mridu Mehta. The exhibition was unveiled at the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in New Delhi from December 11-17, 2015.

Pick-glass: Looking closer
Traditional knowledge, both cultural and ecological most often had a deep rooted logic and sense of respect for available resources. In the name of development and greed, this community knowledge is more often than not sidelined. We realised on the field how environmental problems affect the socio-economic and cultural practices of a community and how everything is connected.  I can sense the change in my perspective on global environmental and economic post this project. Words like resilience and adaptation have a context now. I read more deeply now, and observe more keenly.

This project has also made me appreciate the efforts of my previous team leaders – I now know the difficult task they were facing while navigating us through the field research and post-research compilations. Initiating new projects and working with creative individuals requires an assessment of individual strength along with stimulation, nurture and engagement of the various collaborators. Adding governmental and non-governmental organisations into this mix in the same time and space requires a fine balance, oodles of patience and remembering, as the protagonist of the film ‘Survivor’ says, what are we in this for?

I am still figuring out how to reduce the size of the films we made and share the same with all of you. Including below some snapshots of the launch exhibition in New Delhi. 

The erect panels with field research data. Right in front is the panel acknowledging the project partners and collaborators in the field

Film screening during the exhibition
Details of the exhibition panels