Interview with Ankit Bhargava, Architect and Urban Planner

Ankit is an Architect and Urban Planner with about 10 years of experience in projects relating to spatial planning, urban governance, system design, and architecture. He co-founded Sensing Local, an ‘Urban Living Lab’ (ULL) based in Bengaluru. He is deeply interested in using systems thinking and participatory processes to unpack complex systems and shape new perspectives to drive systemic change.

Can you tell us about your background and your work?

A: I worked for a couple of years as an Architect and then studied Urban Planning. In the Netherlands where I studied, it was all about thinking about the entire country at the same time. That thinking has been important to what I do now. As a single mind, how you’re able to grapple that kind of scale? To communicate in a simple way and include other people in that thinking process. And to be inclusive yet multilayered in the way you’re looking at a certain problem.

We set up Sensing Local in 2016. Our main goal was to change the paradigm of Urban Planning and make it mainstream. Until now, planning in cities was not taken seriously. My co-founder and I were trained in Urban Planning, and we understood that looking at big urban systems is not a rich man’s hobby; it was something that we do as a profession and to learn to be objective within that, be open, participatory, and accountable.

We’ve worked on issues related to air pollution, water management, waste management. We do a lot of work on sustainability, we also run a non-profit called Sensing Local Foundation, which is about capacitating the ward committees and local communities to involve themselves in local governance and local problem-solving. We also have two major initiatives; the Citizen University, which we’re running to capacitate communities in understanding how to engage in the city, and also running living labs at the neighbourhood scale which combines the experts at the local level of the ward and work towards improvement.

1: How was your design education experience in the Netherlands? What was your biggest takeaway? What helped and what didn’t?

A: The biggest surprise for me was that we drew cities by hand. It may sound ridiculous at first, we used tracing paper and drawing scales. All of Netherlands has a huge culture of drawing. Which differs greatly from that of the US, where GIS and computer-based modelling is fairly common. When you’re drawing complex systems, how do you understand where the heart of that complex system is? How do things connect to each other? How do you see things in layers?

As Architects, we see things through text, collages, models and drawing. Looking at things through multiple modalities is an important part of being an Architect. That helps unravel the objects in multiple dimensions.

The biggest takeaways for me was, as Urban Planners you are first looking at neighbourhoods and then you are looking at larger cities. This constant zooming in and zooming out makes you understand the experience of what you’re doing and also think about the consequences.

Deconstruction of issues: Things are not one, they’re made of many parts and what are they and what are they made up of.

Flattening research: Being able to lay out everything that you’re doing on the common platform so everyone else can see your process, what you’re doing, and to not think in silos.

2: When you say everyone, do you mean different stakeholders according to functions?

A: Absolutely! Any design problem requires multiple viewpoints and involves multiple people in the loop. There’s a tendency to think that you’re the one solving the problem, but the solution to the problem lies in multiple people’s heads. So, to appreciate, listen and include the people in the process is very critical.

3: How did you make a shift towards more of systems thinking from a traditional design thinking process?

A: As an architect, you are always taught to think about the regular design process, understanding the product, defining, ideating about it, testing it, and so on. But in the real world, there are consequences to it. Once it meets the world, it becomes complicated.

What systems thinking does is while defining the problem, being aware of everything around the picture that is important. For example, in waste, the city has been struggling with how to deal with waste management since 2012 when the landfills shut down. We were trying to engage with the city to redefine what should happen with waste management because there was no space in the landfills; we tried to lay out the entire waste system by asking these questions:

What are the different types of waste generators? Where are the processing centers? What happens to the waste in the end? Does it get up-cycled, burnt, or incinerated? And to be able to look at everything in the system and then classify them into functions like type 1, 2, and 3.

In the regular design process, you don’t necessarily look at everything at once. You need to look at parts and sub-parts and understand the consequences of every decision. In systems thinking, we’re trying to cover the system of the entire thing. While it takes time, it’s extremely beneficial because it covers the externalities.

For example, you can create a product, but that doesn’t mean it will be adopted by the government or by any other player who can scale it. Just because it’s a good product means nothing. You need to understand your product in the environment’s context within which it will fit.

If you haven’t understood the system, in which your product can fit in, it can be inconsequential. This is the problem with Electric Vehicles right now. I can buy the greatest electric car, but just because I don’t have access to charging stations, I can’t use it!

Your solution may be good, but if it’s out of context, or the infrastructure is not keeping up which needs to support it, it does not matter.

4: Can you tell us about your work, and touch upon the Cubbon Park signages which you designed?

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A: I went to Cubbon Park to audit our work and I found ant colonies inside our signages! As designers, we need to ensure that weather or ants don’t take over the signages. That speaks of not being able to think fully about the system.

Right now, we’re designing cycle lanes in the Whitefield area. In this process, we are re-designing what the street looks like. We are also doing a street design for improved walkability for both older and younger people in Malleshwaram and designing the public space around it for recreation. These projects are both in the realm of improving walkability on roads and reducing car space.

At the KR Market metro station, we are designing historical signage for the old fort area starting from inside the metro station and in the neighbourhood. One of the most interesting things about that project is we’ve put part of the budget to make it accessible to visually impaired people. We conduct workshops where we take visually impaired people through the Metro journey and audit the Metro for accessibility. Turns out, the Metros were terrible both in terms of the way they are designed now and in the future as well.

We are now figuring out how to make this area accessible, and it’s turning out to be a mix of both analog signage, like hard infrastructure and tech. It’s an extremely complex and interesting problem in an area that nobody has thought about it to be spatially good for them. How that user group experiences the Metro differs completely from what we would.

For example, somebody who takes the escalator from the underground area, will find that the railing stops in the middle of the lobby area! This person is stuck in the middle of the station, trying to figure out where to go next. This person comes across a railing and tries to follow it and suddenly there’s this signage. So, if this person follows the railing, he’ll bang into it!

Like the above example, we have not thought about those users at all to any degree! We’re now realising that in the rush to make the city the way we have, it has huge gaps in terms of accessibility. The metro was a huge eye-opener for us. We assumed it wasn’t that bad, but there are severe gaps.

5: How do you navigate the projects that you take up with the government? What if your projects don’t see the light of day? Is that a problem you face?

A: It is a big problem. And the way we have tried to solve the problem and I’ll give you two different entry points. While working with the city for waste management, when the commissioner changed, nobody else in the system knew anything because all the decisions were top-down.

For almost a year, we were working and discussing and talking with the lower level engineers in BBMP. It took us a year to understand the problem and understand what their experience was. Since then we have been working in back to back projects for the last 2.5 years. These projects have all been co-created to address strategic gaps.

Understanding who you’re dealing with and what their problems are is very critical for us. At this moment, we can say through our work almost all the BBMP officials know about the solid waste management strategy is for the city. And that has a lot to do with how we engaged with them and how we continue to strive towards including everybody in that process.

In other cases, It’s been about new ideas. You build out certain ideas and socialize them with the officials and other stakeholders.

Then you use every opportunity you have to create public discourse around it and invite them to see the solutions that you would like. These things don’t happen in one engagement, it happens through multiple engagements and often takes years. Most of the projects we do are either self-conceived or co-created.

6: So when you say you conceptualize your own ideas to what extent you do that?

For example, both the Cubbon Park signage project and the KR market project were conceived in 2016. The KR Market signage project has come to light in March 2020, took five years for it to come through!

In other cases, we work together with interns or volunteers on the project where we’ve taken an idea and explored and documented it to showcase it to interested stakeholders. We refine this further by using their inputs. On seeing this, they invite us to be a part of the project.

So it’s about building interest and stakeholder-ship within your idea as well. It’s not your idea anymore. Once it gets out, you have to make it their idea.

7: How expensive is it for you to test ideas and see when you’re designing the first pieces how expensive is it?

A: An average of six to eight months. It takes us 3-4 months to refine a problem and a couple of months to figure out how to communicate it. This timeline varies based on projects.

As far as cost is concerned, you need to balance the money that goes into the problem and this varies from project to project. Often, we get other people to come in and volunteer with us. They help open up the project then somebody else will come they’ll refine it further and then it’ll be ready for us all to jump in and work through it.

8: How do you folks iterate on a problem? How do you get feedback?

A: It’s a little different in terms of what we do vs what you (as Digital Product Designers) do, perhaps.

A product like the Cubbon Park signage had three stages of inputs for people. The one at the beginning, where we just had the kernel of the idea. We opened it up to the public and got 500+ inputs on what they thought of the idea and the value of the project. Then we got about 200-300 inputs on what kind of information or landmarks to put on the signage. We also held workshops with designers and discussed typography and maps to go on the signage. Here we tried to peel every set of layer and understand it.

We consulted people who brought different perspectives: we had a person who was visually impaired, a nature artist, two historians, and a gender expert.

The first stage was to get inputs on the problem. The second stage was viewing the problem and solution in different ways. And the third stage was when we were done with the first version of the design, we did real-time prototypes in the park and got about 100-200 inputs on that. Then we took all these inputs back and implemented them in our final design.

But, in other projects iteration is an ongoing process, even when the product comes out. With most of our work, it is very much a living entity; you have to constantly figure out how to improve it. With Cubbon Park, we had about three iterations, and now I see another set of inputs since it’s been live for 1.5 years. Now we can go back and see if it worked as we expected. What were the problems and can we improve the next set of signages using these learnings?

In all these three cases, we were always deploying different mechanisms. The public that was engaging with it was always diverse. Taking people who are new to the problem, people who are experienced would have a nuanced perspective and then taking people who are everyday users and finally users that might use the product occasionally. Their experience would be very different each time.

With the Braille design for the Metro, I asked them if you ever got a person who was blind to use it and tested it, but this had not happened. They got only sighted people to help design it and use it.

9: I think one way you mentioned to gauge user feedback is by shadowing and observing them, are there other ways also to see how your solution working?

A: The most obvious thing to do is just put it out and ask people what is. You ask one group of people what something should be like and then show it to another bunch of people. The most important thing for me is, is the outcome meeting the objective? Then is the objective sound?

You’ll be surprised that if people write the purpose of something in the beginning and don’t check it towards the end; You’ll realise that your end is completely on a different tangent. But, if you keep checking it periodically, your problem may get better defined. What I like to always do is constantly check with people “Is this okay? Does this meet the objectives?”. I’m always using a mental checklist and then I do an impact analysis of that process.

10: It’s important to recognize the difference between output and outcome. For example, for people who are in Bangalore, we have a bicycle lane in Jayanagar. That is the output, but the outcome is people park their cars in those bicycle lanes. Can you tell us a little about how you design for outcomes?

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With the Jayanagar cycle lane, they didn’t design it as a system and the project came to light without any participatory research. Did they segregate the lane? No. Did they ensure that an auto cannot get in? No, they didn’t do that.

So, this is what a stakeholder map gives you. It would show you all of this. A systems map would show you that there is parking, there is vehicular movement, there are cycles, there is a cross-movement of people, and you need to take it all into consideration.

11: In terms of accessibility, how are Indian cities compared to western cities?

Urban Planning is almost a 200-year-old discipline. But when did we start to plan our cities? Only in the last couple of decades, we started paying attention to this. Most of our population lived in villages. Now, 30 to 35 percent of people live in cities. A bulk of the economy is now produced in the cities.

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The biggest thing that I’ve learned while developing signage for the visually impaired (VI) users is that we often think of solutions as stand-alone and complete in themselves. With the KR Market project, our current inquiry is how do we create this information and navigation system when it is the signage plus a human being, as a solution?

What I mean by that is, the signage system that I design may not be fully sufficient for every user and people may still have to ask another person to translate something. The reason this was very important for us is that we are dealing with such a deficit of infrastructure, everything is broken. If everything is broken, how can one project solve for it all?

KR Market as an area, is so chaotic that no matter how good a signage system we put, there will always be 50 percent of the public that will feel lost. I can’t put a signage system for every 100 meters, it’s not possible! In India, we may have to think of infrastructure and the person together.

For signage for VI groups, we are thinking about how to make it so that for some key tasks people can independently manage them, but for complex tasks, they may be able to seek assistance. The reality is, people who are often visually impaired do have assistance. I cannot design an autonomous system because it would cost me 1.5 crores and I have never been allotted that kind of money.

As we go about building better cities or better environment, in our case, we can never fulfill the 100%. That’s what I’ve realised.

I was once told, the best outcome is when everyone is a little disappointed. That idea is so different from what you’re taught in design school. You’re taught that your idea could be the next Tesla. But that’s not true. Because the context is so rich with complexity that once the solution hits the context, you can only assume what will happen.

12: You spoke about participatory design and getting different stakeholders involved in it. When you get so many people from different areas and life experiences, how do you ensure that all of them speak up and participate equally?

A: Most important issues in India deal with the idea that the user group is often marginalised. So, a curation of participatory workshops has been some of the most revealing and the most important work we’ve done. It’s creating that environment, where different people can open up and participate. You notice many people have either been suppressed for a long time, or have been empowered with enough context to involve them in a meaningful way.

This process of thinking both in terms of empathy but also strategy is critical. It’s not just about feeling empathetic, you have to make room for it. It’s a lot of hard work to figure out how to make room for it. And then you have to make room in the budget for it also because actually, it is often not accounted for.

Only in 2020 and 2021, we started getting projects where they want us to do participatory workshops. But that has come after three and a half years of doing it on our own. It’s not good enough to just understand marginality, but to actually understand how to include them in decision making. Slowly you’ll realise that the solution around it becomes much simpler once you hear everyone out.

13. What are the challenges you see in terms of climate change and what are the opportunities you think are there for a designer here who is interested in the topic?

A: If you break down what it means to solve for the climate change crisis, it becomes easier. Right now, we’re working on improving bus system signage to improve public transport usage. The more people use buses, the fewer emissions are released into the atmosphere, and this in turn has an impact on the climate.

One can start at any point to see how one can break it down in terms of waste management, transport, and energy. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is: what are the ways in which we can improve the user experience of solutions and cause behavior change to let people make better choices? If it’s just a better choice to cycle, what will make it a better choice? What will enable me to not choose a car or an auto but take a bike?

So, one can break that down into small bits and say: if I do this am I moving in a positive direction? Am I causing more sustainable choices to be made? Then you can engage yourself in anything.

Most of the science communication is complicated. That’s a huge opening for designers to come in and occupy that space.

We need designers to translate complex scientific data in a simplified way for everyday users so that they get to make better and informed choices. If we aim to make better choices every day, there are a million things that one can do.

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