For the past year, my design partner and I have been part of a transdisciplinary and intercultural team of scientists, designers, engineers and activists. Together, this team of diverse subject matter experts has been trying to address pollution in the waterbodies of Bengaluru, also called India’s silicon city. Over the past decade or so, lakes emanating toxic foam and waste-chocked drainage systems have come to represent the massive unplanned urbanization that the city has undergone. And for urban designers who aim to critically engage with urban ecology, the city offered us a chance to understand the challenges of urban wastewater management.

Driven by this curiosity, and fueled by the support of the U.S. Fulbright program (whose mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding between the U.S. and the world), we came to Bengaluru and collaborated with a city-based socio-environmental think tank, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), to create a bottom-up, decentralized strategy to tackle wastewater pollution.

Working with ATREE was a refreshing change of pace to our typical workflows as designers. The organization’s team of engaged ecologists, economists and sociologists have been tackling the nuanced implications of conservation and sustainability in India for decades. But to have designers walking their hallways wasn’t an immediately natural fit, and our collaboration was marked early on by steep learning curves.

But in-depth tours of local wastewater treatment plants and a first-hand experience of collecting water quality samples from streams and lakes helped us understand the nature of the problem and realize our potential as urban architects and designers to address the same. Likewise, our subsequent involvement in the process of project development exposed our colleagues at ATREE to a range of perspectives, design tools and visualization strategies that don’t exist in the purview of academic research.

Having arrived at a shared understanding of the problem, we narrowed our focus down to the city’s polluted stormwater drainage systems. Treating pollution in the city’s network of drains prevents contamination in lakes and rivers where they empty. And with our project, Strategic In-stream Systems, or “STRAin-s,” we are currently working towards implementing small-scale alternatives to large, expensive, and complex infrastructural solutions.

At its most basic level, STRAin-s is a tactical design intervention that’s informed by applied research. Each STRAin-s unit would divert solid waste from the streams or drains, separate suspended solids and sediments, and use biofilters to minimize contaminants. Our initial findings demonstrate that these systems can be deployed and scaled at a low cost with an immediate positive impact on localized water quality.

In the previous months, our team has been engaged in ongoing schematic design, lab-based material performance testing, and relationship building with a diverse array of local partners including MAPSAS Trust, Biome Trust, Eco Paradigm, The Jana Urban Space Foundation, Friends of Lakes, and others. The forthcoming installation of a small-scale localized demonstration site in the southern periphery of Bengaluru will be the first of its kind in the country.

While this work has just begun, emboldened by the promise of this initial partnership model, the founding collaborators now hope to inaugurate a transdisciplinary “virtual networked center” tentatively called the “STRAin-s Applied Research Collective.” The collective aims to help build upon the momentum already established in the past year and enable this critical cross-cultural collaboration to continue into the future.

The Applied Research Collective will continue to bridge design and science by aligning the capacities of ATREE, Biome Environmental Solutions (a Bengaluru based ecological design firm), COMMONstudio, and University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment (SEAS). This virtual center also aims to provide opportunities for American students and researchers to visit and understand the challenges in the Indian context, and allow Indian researchers to travel to the U.S. to seek insights from their American counterparts. The STRAin-s Applied Research Collective will thus offer a vibrant nucleus for shared vocabularies, diverse educational experiences, original research, knowledge-sharing, and collaborative project development, which will actively contribute practical responses to Bengaluru’s ongoing wastewater crisis.

Collaborating with a range of water experts and social scientists at ATREE has demonstrated to us that the worlds of “knowing” and “doing” can be better integrated. Transdisciplinary collaborations, such as this one, eschew rigid hierarchies and conventional ways of thinking and working. When it feels like nobody is in the proverbial “driver’s seat,” mutual trust is paramount. We hope that such projects and partnerships demonstrate the possibility for new modes of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary engagements that bridge the “design-science divide” and point to new horizons of action.          

(The author is a Los Angeles-based architect and urban designer and a co-director of the COMMONstudio. He is a recipient of the 2016-2017 Fulbright-Nehru design research fellowship.)

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