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August 2009

 

Cycle-friendly Auroville
“The collaboration was remarkable”

- From an interview by Alan

 

Raghu and Chandresh coordinated the workshop. What was their intention and does it open up new possibilities for Auroville's development?

Raghu and Chandresh
Raghu (left) and Chandresh

AVToday: How did this workshop come about?

Chandresh: Two years back a group of us, including Raghu, began meeting together to talk about what Auroville urgently needs to do to take the next step in its community and infrastructural development. One idea was to use expertise from outside to help solve Auroville problems.

Raghu: In terms of Auroville's development, the key issue at present is the shortage of people with the required skill sets. That's why we have to look outside. So the idea was to get people from outside to work with Auroville experts and to channelise all these energies into something tangible, useful. We decided to begin with a workshop on improving the cycling environment as this seemed doable in the short-term.

As we wanted to try out a collaborative model of problem-solving and we didn't want to work with too many unknown factors, we restricted participation to people from India . We also decided to draw our participants from postgraduate students and young working professionals.

At our first introductory session I explained the basic principles of the workshop. Firstly, nobody would own any of the ideas: everything would be collective, Open Source, available for anybody to use. Secondly, the workshop would run on a goodwill basis. There would be no workshop fee and no corporate sponsors. Instead, everybody would offer what they could in a spirit of goodwill.

Why should such a workshop be attractive to professionals from outside?

Raghu: I worked in the Research and Design industry for 25 years and when you work in industry your scope is limited to what your company is interested in: all the time you are thinking within a particular box. So professionals are always looking for opportunities to think in different ways; to be in environments where new ideas are generated that they can take back and implement them in their own field.

Innovation happens when you connect the ‘wrong' people at the right time. A lawyer or a doctor in a design team sparks off innovation. Put ten designers together and nothing new comes out. This is why we put together participants from different disciplines and why we allowed, for example, architects to work on non-architectural projects. This way they discover new fields, new approaches.

Secondly, Auroville itself is very interesting to these people because it's very much hands-on. In one month they got a tremendous learning experience which they would never have got in a university or a company because not only were they generating ideas but they also had to construct them on the ground. This meant managing their own budget, learning how to use the materials, supervising workers etc. It was the whole cycle, an integral experience.

The first week of the workshop was spent collecting information about cycling in Auroville. What were the most interesting findings?

Raghu: It emerged that most of the cyclists on our roads are local people commuting to work. The next biggest group is guests. The smallest segment is Aurovilians who cycle for pleasure, lifestyle or health reasons.

Chandresh: We noticed that the villagers always carry something on their cycles – tiffin bags, wood etc. – and that some of the loads are large and unwieldy. They don't complain, they are used to it, but we wanted to see if we could do something for them as well as for the Aurovilians who cycle. Some of the Aurovilian cyclists complained of being treated like second-class citizens: they feel everything here is designed for motorcycles and cars. For example, at the Town Hall there is no dedicated parting for cyclists.

Raghu: In the focus group interview, the Aurovilian cyclists said they wanted the cycle paths to have a certain character. They didn't want them paved or fantastically lit but to be made of natural materials and unobtrusive. They also wanted them to run through nature, away from the noise and dust of motorised traffic. There were also concerns about places where cycle paths cross motorised roads, as accidents happen here.

Did the workshop receive much support from Auroville?

Raghu: The support was tremendous. Firstly, of course, we had the Auroville mentors who gave freely of their time and expertise. Then various Aurovilians or groups sponsored different things. Ulli sponsored our use of the Multi Media Centre, SAIIER sponsored the participants' lodging and lunches, L'Avenir covered the cost of prototypes, Living Routes offered their cycles, the Road Service sent across their mechanical digger to speed up some digging work. In fact, I've never seen this level of collaboration anywhere before. Nobody said ‘no' to us.

And then, of course, there were the open sessions with the community. Here Aurovilians gave feedback on the participants' ideas – this was crucial as the whole process was user-centred – but they also said it was great to see so many people working together with such a young and inspiring a dynamic. I think this meant more to the participants than anything else.

What about the collaboration between the participants?

Raghu: That was also remarkable. None of the participants knew each other before arriving here, but by the end of the second week everybody had a very good working relationship and they could work together in any combination. Then again, it was truly collective thinking: it was impossible to say which idea came from which person. Later, when they split into groups to materialise different projects, they continued to move from project to project, helping each other. Nobody felt possessive about a particular project.

In terms of moving Auroville towards being a cycle city, none of these projects is likely to be a key lever. What do you think that lever could be?

Chandresh: I've been thinking about this for many years. I believe that if you can provide a cycle which is maintained centrally then people will switch from motorised transport. Today it's a hassle to maintain a cycle. If you could pick up a cycle, go to the next place and drop it off and not have to worry about maintaining it, I think many more people would choose to cycle. If you mix in some electric cycles that would also be good, but the cost is too high at present.

Raghu: We need action at three levels to make Auroville more of a bicycle city. Firstly, there is the community systems level which Chandresh is talking about. Secondly, there is the need to improve the physical environment for cyclists, which is something we addressed a little bit in the workshop. Thirdly, there is the need to change attitudes and values. At some point it has to become ‘cool' to cycle so that if you're on a motorised vehicle people you'll feel uncomfortable. It's much tougher to change attitudes. It can happen but it will take time.

Again, if in the city planning process priority is given to non-motorised vehicles that will definitely make a huge difference.

What is the significance of this workshop for Auroville's future development?

Chandresh: The collaborative aspect is very important: not just the participants but many of the Aurovilian mentors were working together for the first time. If they can keep working together and draw in more and more Aurovilians to work on different projects, we can develop much faster.

Raghu: So far development in Auroville has happened in ‘islands', lots of individuals doing their own thing. We are nowhere near critical mass yet so this working in isolation is normal and natural. But as Auroville grows we have to work on the next phase, which is ‘clustering'. Here you can still have your own responsibility or ‘brand', but now you work together with others so you can handle much larger and more complex projects. This is the only way we are going to be able to build Auroville and I think this workshop has provided a model of how we can take that next step.

In terms of enhancing the cycling environment, quite a few of the products can go into the next stage of development. The cycle map definitely will go into production and some of the accessories are very interesting. It's worth mentioning that we began and ended the workshop with a zero budget and that we made all the prototypes for less than one lakh rupees.

If this workshop is a pilot project for community infrastructure projects, what might be the next area to focus upon?

Chandresh: 90% of the city still has to be built, there's so much to do. But I think the next important area we could explore in this way is low-cost housing.

Raghu: Actually, the opportunities are endless. The main thing is we should be prepared to welcome people from outside to work with us in solving our problems. At present I think it's the only way to go. When we have 10,000 people living here, when we have some kind of critical mass, it will be a very different situation.

 

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