TALKS | Methodology, philosophy and theory of systemic design

The Jumbo Problem – Non-anthropocentric Design Research to Address Elephant-Train Collisions

Tejaswini Nagesh, National Institute of Design, India
Nitin Sekar, WWF-India
Praveen Nahar, National Institute of Design

+Small group breakout session with the author follows Talk

Read the working paper ⇒

India is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, but it is also the country with the second-highest population in the world. Our diverse land is under constant pressure to reach a balance between development and preserving our roots. This puts a lot of stress on the ecology of the country as well. Although most cultural practices were aimed at being in harmony with nature, the increasing population and its needs is leading to conflict between humans and animals. This conflict is a lot of times due to an underlying man-made cause, created due to unawareness of the consequences.

Design and design processes focus on finding problems and solving the right problems to help address an issue. For years, a human-centred approach has been the focus of design. But then the importance of being inclusive was introduced into our ignorant societies which resulted in the practice of ‘Universal design’. While universal design’s inclusivity extends to the spectrum of people with different abilities or constraints and across different ages, it is of supreme importance that we realise we are a part of this world and do not live in an isolated capsule. Every action made by a population of our scale would make a significant impact on the rest of the ecosystem. It is high time to recognise and acknowledge the world we live in and the presence of other living beings big and small who are being affected by our actions constantly. This calls for a non-anthropocentric approach to design which acknowledges that we are not the only beings on this planet and that every action taken could have an impact on the rest of the earth that humans share with other beings. It considers the bigger picture where just addressing human-related problems could do more harm than help. This project is an experiment towards designing for a species other than ours in an attempt towards cross-species inclusivity. The subject considered is the threat human development i.e linear infrastructure has posed to the Asian elephants. In specific, this project studies the context of elephant and train collisions.

Since 1986, the Asian elephant has been listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List as the wild population has declined by at least 50% since the 1940s to 1930s. At present, there are around 27,312 elephants roaming India(2017 estimation). The Asian elephant is threatened by habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation. Coupled with the need for elephants to move over large areas, human and elephant conflict is constantly on the rise. One of the major issues of such conflict is with Elephants and trains. At least 17 elephants are mowed down by trains every year. The number is only bound to increase with growing infrastructure, faster trains and shrinking habitats. This is an issue which can be addressed with the joint efforts of a combination of stakeholders like the Indian Railways and the Forest Department through a multi-pronged systems approach.

The study follows a participatory approach which builds upon the tacit knowledge and subject expertise of grassroots stakeholders. The project was a result of the contribution of each of this stakeholder who was consulted in each step of the process. The stakeholders were essentially the experts on the subject due to their exposure to the context on an everyday basis. The stakeholders included were:
Forest department -Patrol staff, range officers
Indian Railways – Station Master, Loco pilots, Trackmen, etc.
WWF-India field personnel
The initial research involved in qualitative discussion sessions to understand the system while the following meetings were aimed at getting possible interventions evaluated and critiqued by these stakeholders.

Setting aside changes in elephant habitat that might have a bearing on train-elephant collisions, we found that the problem of train-elephant collisions could be broken down into five frames, each of which could be addressed to help reduce the probability of train-elephant collisions. These frames are:

• Elephants attracted to being on or around or passing over the railway track
• Difficulty in detecting the presence of an elephant near a track in time to prevent a collision
• Problems in communicating the information to the loco-pilot in time to prevent a collision
• Elephants struggling to escape an approaching train
• Communicating the issue to stakeholders who might not be familiar with the problem.
• Changes in the landscape due to development

These frames help break down a problem into segments that can be individually addressed, helping simplify the complexity of such issues. Solving each of these frames would have a significant contribution to mitigating the issue. These frames also made us better perceive the levels of complexity of the issue. The issue of Elephant-Train collisions has multiple layers of complexity to it. It is a time-sensitive issue whose occurrence cannot be exactly predicted. It also involves an animal which is under stress from loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation. This is further made complex by the involvement of two departments of the government who need to work in coordination for any significant change to happen. While a designer’s approach to the issue helped visualize and categorise the problems, there is further scope for contribution in tackling each of these problems.

The elephant-train accidents project is a way to explore a specific problem of man-animal conflict and the potential areas in which design interventions would be useful in conflict mitigation. A major focus of interest while starting this project was to study and design for another species affected by ours. Human-wildlife conflict is a space where design needs to cater to different species while ensuring the safety of both parties during interaction and crisis. Most of these issues are complex and are a result of the larger scheme of things. Design being a collaborative process would be a powerful tool in helping build an ecosystem which acknowledges other species and a systems study will make any intervention/ change introduced by humans a better-informed one. This non-anthropocentric perspective to design would hopefully nudge us from human-centred designers to humane designers.