Jugaad innovation has been hyped in the business world for a few years now. Jugaad comes from Hindi, and it refers to a type of innovation occurring mostly in rural areas of India, where people are improvising innovative solutions to pressing problems with minimal resources. This informal way of working has recently caught the attention of large corporations as it promises efficient, inexpensive methods of producing goods for emerging markets. Can working with limited resources be a catalyst for innovative design in other contexts?
In the US, we (architects) often take for granted how readily available and cheap the building materials we specify are. Lowes is right around the corner. Of course working within a budget takes a certain amount of finesse, but could we all use a little Jugaad to push the way we utilize resources in our projects? To me, this method of working is akin to the how our frugal grandmothers might have made tasty miracles with a few scraps of food, or the way that the first pioneers understood the local environment and the possibilities of making shelter from readily available materials. In this time of so many uncertainties – economic, political, environmental – creating more with less seems to make sense, and using what is at hand in new and inventive ways challenges old habits in our throw-away society.
“SystemaMateria” is a short design problem that is part of the Traditional Building Methods: New Adaptations seminar. The objective of the assignment is to help students to understand the complexities of working in an environment where resources are limited, and to investigate what possibilities can emerge when the design process is informed by found materials. The student is asked to select a “landscape” in Seattle–either natural, manmade, or a hybrid of the two–to gather materials found in that particular landscape, and to make a useful object from the found materials. Some students purposefully select a landscape because it offers particular materials, some select a landscape because they see the possibility to design something for the landscape, while others simply select a place that they feel particularly connected to.
The material becomes the focus in this process; the student must question and test what the limits and qualities of the materials are. The materials are difficult to work with, and are unpredictable: finding a way to organize or enhance their best qualities is a key part of the project. The strongest solutions almost always exploit a “system” that makes use of the most distinct qualities of the material.
One student, Erin McDade, selected Seattle bus stops as her landscape. During her visits to the stops, she noticed that they were poorly lit at night. She opted to create lighting made of discarded bottles and soda can tabs from the bus stop trash. Her idea suggests a playful and engaging way to light other bus stops in the city.
Ryan Jorgensen selected the supermarket QFC as his landscape. His final project employs plastic QFC shopping bags to create a “Growceries” window planter. An expanded version of this system could cover larger areas of apartment building facades. Other projects create seating, storage, or interactive installations for their sites. The final requirement of the project is to return the piece to its landscape and to document it in situ.
The SystemaMateria projects have an improvised, ad hoc character that counters the usual polished and perfect work students are encouraged to produce while in school. The final pieces invariably fit seamlessly back into their contexts, and often take on a slightly subversive character, as if someone has walked by, rearranged a few things, and left a small offering for passersby to enjoy. Although aim of the project does not specifically require solutions to pressing problems, the process of selecting and experimenting with a limited material palette creates unexpected results, and often useful additions to quotidian landscapes.
Elizabeth Golden is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture and is currently studying the interface between technology and traditional construction methods in both the developed and developing world.