Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Compound 13 Lab

Here's a kind of manifesto/outline of the thinking behind the project Ben Parry, Tushar Joag, Vinod Shetty and I have been working on in Mumbai, which we are launching in April.

Compound 13 Lab is an experimental design and development 'anti-lab', situated very close to Mumbai's recycling district, an industrial centre within Dharavi. The project is a partnership between ACORN Foundation India, three UK-based researchers at the University of the West of Scotland, Bath Spa University, Coventry University, and in India, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi. IIT Mumbai, Imaginarium and Makers Asylum are also involved with the initiative. It has been developed as an unplanned outcome of a follow-on project for international impact and engagement, Resources of Hope, by AHRC within the Global Challenges Research Fund.

Since the 1950s, more than 9 billion tons of plastic has been produced worldwide. Many plastic items are used once and thrown away. As most plastics do not naturally degrade, they remain with us, usually buried in landfill or in the ocean. India generates around 3.4 million tons of plastic per year, of which 60 - 80% is recycled. India therefore boasts one of the highest rates of plastic recycling in the world, although in general the working conditions and practices of the informally organised recycling industry are challenging and dangerous for those that work in it.

Every day, the city of Mumbai produces over 10,000 tons of waste. More than 80% is collected, sorted, recycled and reclaimed, with upwards of 300,000 rag-pickers supplying grassroots, small scale recycling enterprises as part of the city's waste management chain. Around 4000 tons of plastic and other recyclables find their way to Dharavi to be processed and treated each day. In Dharavi at least 50,000 people are directly employed in the waste management/recycling industry. Most industries in Dharavi are labour-intensive, producing high levels of pollution, even though they contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of the city.

Led by ACORN Foundation, we are launching an experimental design and innovation lab within Dharavi's 13th Compound (workers' colony and home of Mumbai's central recycling district). The 'anti-lab' will explore the problems of waste, work and survival in the 21st Century. The plan is to put state-of-the-art technology and tools for design, manufacturing, music and digital media into the hands of Dharavi's young people.

Compound 13 Lab, inspired by the makerspace movement, utilises the materials and resources of the recycling industry as the starting point for learning and teaching about ecological design and living solutions. Through a programme of workshops and residencies by artists, scientists, engineers and designers, the lab will share emerging tools and technologies of the circular economy with those who would not normally have access to them. The project proposes a different paradigm of 'smart city' where the technologically advanced city emerges from below rather than being centrally planned and implemented. In particular, members will be able to test and innovate with various technologies, exploring the ways in which plastics can be recycled, remanufactured and remade safely, reliably and creatively.

Through exploring issues of waste management and recycling we want to explore the essential interdependence between the formal/informal, the 'socially included' and 'socially excluded' which are uncovered in representations of the material and imaginary city.

Since no municipal waste management policy or programme of recycling exists, the circular economy and supply chain in cities like Mumbai rely on informal processes and self-organisation, from rag-pickers, sorters, industrial processors to scrap dealers and re-sellers. The thinking, research and practical applications of the lab will approach this complex set of relationships through the 'story of waste', exploring narratives that challenge recieved notions of disposable products and materials, reflecting on the reproduction of labour and the 'biopolitics of disposability'.

The experimental maker- and learning space will help to change public perception of 'waste as a problem' to 'waste as resource' and engage with ecological thinking in one of Mumbai's most contested and challenged neighbourhoods, working collaboratively with residents and young people to develop new paradigms of waste management and sustainable urban living. At the heart of the lab is creative, participatory learning, which directly links innovation and experimentation with design, knowledge exchange and arts-based research. Just as the city is upgrading its infrastructure, we want to upgrade the tools and technologies available to the people of Dharavi so they can equip themselves for the jobs and skills of the future.