By Hamish Beattie, 16 October 2013
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a weekend helping out at an orphanage in central Kenya. After playing a few games of football with the children in the shadow of Mt. Kenya, I sat down in the sun to check my emails on my phone. One of the children, a 15 year old boy called Edward, approached me and asked if I had any games installed. I launched the pocket edition of Minecraft, handed him the phone and proceeded to look on amazed as he learned the interface in just a few minutes with no instruction. Not only did he understand the program but he quickly built a model of the orphanage in which he lives.
Edward at the Lipela Orphanage
Seeing this boy creating with Minecraft set my mind spinning. Firstly, I thought about how the increased use of computers, mobile phones and internet is creating huge possibilities for participatory design processes. Walk around the poorest regions of the world today and you will find a large portion of the inhabitants owning mobile phones, albeit often with only the most basic functions. But with the advance of technology, within a few years, the world’s slum dwellers will be carrying the technology necessary to build CAD models in their pockets. This is really an exciting time for urban professionals looking for new ways of involving poor people in urban planning and design.
Secondly, the way Edward constructed the model of his environment was really interesting. As one could expect, the model was proportionally inaccurate. But when I spoke with him about his build, I found that his model was inspired by much more than his physical surroundings. What he had produced was a 3-dimensional diagram of the orphanage – but one that also portrayed the emotive qualities of the environment.
Edward’s model of the orphanage
For example, as one of the oldest children at the orphanage, he is responsible for much of the cleaning and cooking. The spaces in which he carries out these activities, for example the kitchen and washing areas, were modeled as enclosed concrete spaces – a metaphorical representation of his feeling towards the activities he performed in them. On the other hand, the dormitory, where he relaxed, was modeled as a large open space, made out of lighter materials, with a high ceiling and large windows. He explained this to me as he felt this space was his sanctuary - a space where he could retreat from the chores of everyday life.
The kitchen and cleaning buildings done in grey stone and much smaller than in reality
I feel that this example represents a very powerful observation on participatory design tools – the ability for residents to express themselves visually with regard to the emotive qualities of the environment.