Babitha George is a partner at Quicksand — a leading design thinking and innovation firm — and anchors their Bangalore studio. Her prior work in education prompted her to examine the role of design thinking in social impact contexts, and she has gone on to lead many Quicksand social innovation projects. Babitha is a management graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, prior to which she studied English, Journalism, and Psychology. She believes strongly in the strength of multi-disciplinary approaches and reading, writing, and storytelling shapes many of her interests and creative pursuits. Babitha is one of the co-founders of the UnBox Festival. She is also on the Advisory Board of the Victor Papanek Foundation and was featured in the British Council’s Blurring the Lines exhibition in London, as one of sixteen people from around the world who are reinventing creative exploration and participation in their respective communities.
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Could you start by telling me your name and a little bit about what you do?
My name is Babitha and I live in Bangalore in India. I am part of a design consulting firm called Quicksand. Broadly speaking, we do projects around human-centered design and design thinking. Our work spans clients across many sectors — public services like health and sanitation and financial inclusion, and private companies to develop new products and services. In addition to this, we also run a platform called UnBox — a community and celebration of multidisciplinary practice. This manifests in multiple ways, including a festival, a fellowship program, and design experience labs.
Can you tell me about a specific time where you’ve really felt a sense of success in your work?
We were pioneers in the human-centered design space in India. Quicksand is now 13+ years old, and when we started, human-centered design in India was mostly unheard of — we were pretty much the only ones doing it. Now there’s a lot more talk about human-centered design.
Also, I’m proud to have set up a studio with five friends that is fairly egalitarian. It’s an interesting space that embodies the studio culture and has tried to stay away from regular organizational politics and hierarchies. I think we have done that semi-successfully.
Could you provide a more specific example, to contextualize those ideas you just mentioned?
UnBox is a good example. Most things out there are just conferences that bring people on stage to present portfolios and talk about successes. We felt that there should be something else out there that celebrated messiness, because our lives and practice are pretty messy. As an idea, it’s still quite experimental for India. We struggle with it, but I think the fact that we’ve kept it going and have found a space for everyone within the studio to find expression in that platform is important — we’ve built a much larger network. I don’t think UnBox is any more ours — it is as much Jon’s and Michelle’s as it is mine. That project, in my mind, has been a huge success for us.
What led you to human-centered design?
As a studio, I think our reasons were partially selfish. We were friends before we started the studio together — all of us came from very different backgrounds. We were looking for a space to come together and work. We felt that there had to be something, because the world seemed very complex. There were lots of specialists trying to deal with it, but we felt that there could be an alternate approach. A few of us were familiar with human-centered design, and that’s one reason we decided to work together.
The more personal reason is that I had worked in education in India, although I have an MBA and had worked in the corporate sector. The issue of education is a really complex problem in India, and there are never easy solutions. I worked in specialized education, with a social enterprise and with a non-profit, and although I felt there was merit in having educationalists and specialists dealing with these problems, I often found that they would forget that children learn when they are having fun. These people would create theories to solve problems, but they forgot to take the children into account in their solutions. It was a very intuitive sense of needing to listen to people who are using services that got me interested in this space. That’s my personal rationale for coming to this.
What is a specific example of a challenge you’ve faced in your work?
We worked on a large urban sanitation project — probably one of the largest projects we’ve undertaken. It emerged from research work that we’d done across the country. We had come up with many hypotheses, and had the opportunity to test and implement some of those ideas — which we don’t often get a chance to do. Often, we make recommendations and hope that others will act on them. In this case, there was a chance to put those recommendations into action and try to impact a space that is hugely problematic in India.
It was an incredible opportunity, but we were naive when we jumped into it. We’d never worked at that kind of scale. We’d never worked with the government of India, which is filled with really motivated and talented people, but they’re part of such a large, complex system that it grounds you and reminds you that nothing exists in isolation. You might have the perfect solution, but it is part of such a much larger interconnected system — to be aware and cognizant of that throughout is so important. We had to learn that the hard way and it was extremely challenging. It wasn’t a failure, but it was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done.
Can you describe what you mean when you say that you don’t frequently get the opportunity to test and implement your ideas?
We do get to take insights and opportunities, during the prototyping phase, back to users for their responses and further inputs. However, with the actual work, in many cases, we provide the foundation for it, but then we have to hand it over to the client and hope for the best.
Going back to the challenges related to taking on a huge, complex project. What are some of the strategies you used to address this? How did you work your way through it?
There were multiple things we had to do. One of the main challenges we had to address was bringing together a fairly large consortium of researchers, quantitative impact evaluation folks, government interface folks, and architects. We were bringing in all of these people, in addition to designing the larger system, which was, in itself, quite challenging. Everyone from these very different organizations was used to working in their own silos.
We tried many things — getting people together in a room, having weekly calls. Some of this succeeded to an extent — some didn’t. We had to keep adapting these methods to fit the situation. One strategy was, therefore, internal. The second was just doing what the context needed. One way we attempted to address this was by sending one of our colleagues to the location. He had to go and live in this small town and set up an office, but was much closer to the action and thus enabled us to respond to changing realities on the ground in a more adaptive way. We had to adapt to the situation and do things we had never done before.
It was not part of our job goal to get letters signed by the government, but we knew that the project wouldn’t progress unless we did that, so my colleague would just line up in the government office every morning at 9:00AM and wait. More often than not, nobody would meet him, but he would just keep waiting until the day he got the letter signed — and then do it all over again for the next letter.
Actually, that reminds me of another interesting story within this same project. One of our roles during the project was to build the toilets and the branding , operations, and maintenance that went along with it. When we started, we assumed there was a sewage network in the city for all of these toilets. But, once we started the project, we discovered there was no sewage network. It was in the plans, but knowing typical timelines, it would be a long time before those plans came to fruition. In the interim we needed to figure something out — otherwise untreated waste would be released into water bodies and create a public health hazard.
It wasn’t part of our job. We would not have been held to fault if we didn’t figure out a solution to the sewage issue, because it wasn’t within the mandate of the project. But we knew we had to find a solution. We were scrambling to find a solution — for example bringing local government engineers to other cities where similar projects had been implemented to talk to the engineers there. We also brought those engineers to conferences where experts talked about the need for solutions like what we were recommending. We did all we could to get things to work. Again, we succeeded with some and we didn’t with others — the point being that the demands of the project fluctuated on a daily basis, so it didn’t really mean anything to have a plan and stick to it. It was more important to be adaptable while sticking to the larger project goal and to bite the bullet and do whatever it took.
Shifting topics now, what does the term “open internet” mean for you?
I am part of a minority here in India, with access to knowledge, networks, and many other things. Most people in our country live a very different life. Information and access to information is probably one of the strongest ways in which we can overcome several of the traditionally held challenges of India. For example, people in the villages of India might not even have access to their own land records because of caste or traditional farming hierarchies. Someone in a more powerful position might bully them out of their land and make them almost bonded laborers. I’m putting it very simplistically, but lack of access to information presents many challenges to the people of India.
When you think about a situation such as this and what role the internet and, more broadly, technology can play in overcoming situations like these, it is quite immense. In the context of India, it would be dangerous if this access were to be concentrated within the interests of a few large corporations. If we replicate the previous system, and we don’t address the downfalls present in the previous system, then we are potentially creating a system with the potential for even larger bullies. I think, therefore, it’s political, it’s social, it’s ethical, and it’s cultural. It’s all of these things, which makes the open internet all the more important as an idea and as something we should all be fighting for in a place like India.
Can you give me an example of how some of these open aspects of the internet have been important for you, specifically?
I don’t know if it is a one-to-one association, but data privacy is something I struggle with. India is currently on a mission to assign unique identification numbers to every citizen. I feel like we haven’t studied the problems of that closely enough. I have so far refused to get a number. They’re trying to make it mandatory by associating the numbers with more and more services, but I refuse to take part unless I know what’s happening with that data.
I currently have the privilege of being able to work with an open web. That also implies privacy for me and control over my data, which is something that I’ve been working on a lot more. For example, I’m trying to be more aware of alternatives to the little choices I make every day regarding internet usage, including the messaging app I use on my phone or at work. Some options might have more bugs than the mainstream applications, but I’m willing to live with that inconvenience if it means I’m not giving data out to large private interests.
When you think about the privacy of your data, what are some of the concerns that you have?
For me, the biggest issue is the lack of transparency — when somebody else has access to my data and I don’t know what data they have access to. I am unable to control access to my personal data if I don’t know this. It seems like subterfuge — hidden and inaccessible and bad. If I can’t see what information people are accessing about me, there’s a problem — not knowing what happens to that data is an even bigger problem.
Getting more specific about Mozilla, how did you get involved with them, and what has that been like for you?
Again, it’s a story of how theUnBox network has grown over the years. I met Jon Rogers by chance at the London Design Festival, and we got to chatting, felt an instant connection, and started working together.
Through Jon, I got in touch with folks at the Mozilla Foundation, including Michelle. Jon felt that some of the values that we hold dear at UnBox resonated with the values that the foundation holds important, and that’s how we made the connection. We started doing some work with the volunteer community in India at the festival. Over the past year, after I came to Scotland, we worked on several events and projects together with the Open Internet of Things (IoT) Studio.
Can you tell me about a time where this involvement with Mozilla has had some sort of impact on your life or your work or your organization?
The area that we’re working in together, the open IoT, is something that we are — as a studio and as a practice — fairly interested in. What’s been amazing about the opportunity to work with Mozilla is that we’ve had the chance to explore this further. Often, in consulting projects or in commercial projects, there are several constraints.
In the work that we’ve been doing with Mozilla, it’s been quite incredible, because the usual constraints that a consulting project comes with do not exist. There is the opportunity to really push the boundaries in some sense and do it the way we really would have wanted to — that’s been quite fortunate.
I want to jump back to something you mentioned, that you felt, or that Jon felt, that you had similar values to the way Mozilla’s been working. Could you dig in and describe those values in a bit more detail?
First, I must qualify that my articulation of this is limited to the Mozilla Foundation, and perhaps even further limited to the efforts that Michelle and Jon are steering. I believe that MozFest is an event that really aligns with our values in a deeper sense — having patience, being all right with messiness, and knowing that collaboration is messy and can cause strife and anxiety, and being comfortable with that as people are putting together groups and events. These are values that made us connect quite easily.
Also, we’re open to being influenced and steered by a larger group and not holding things too dear — “This is something I started, so I decide where it’s going,” — that’s not how we run UnBox. Being open and welcoming but, at the same time, attentive and curating the set of people you’re bringing into the fold — not so much for intelligence and being the smartest person — but for being genuine, interested, and collaborative. I think the way Mozilla Foundation brings a larger network together, at a much larger scale, of course, is quite similar to how we’ve attempted to build networks, as well.
What kind of feedback do you have for Mozilla about your interactions? Is there a time you thought Mozilla could do better or some interactions that didn’t meet your expectations?
One gap I see is that we haven’t been able to make many connections within the community of India. I am sure there are various reasons why this is the case. Mozilla as a corporation is probably doing more work in India within the volunteer community, rather than the foundation, but we haven’t been able to make active connections within the larger community. We have connections with two or three people, but not within the larger community.
The other issue I see, is that conversations around ideas or projects which may be important to us, that get us excited, sometimes seem to get lost. For a small studio like ours, these conversations are quite a large part of our life — but for a larger entity, it’s probably only one of many conversations they may be involved in. I understand how it might seem to be lost, but that’s an area where it would be good to see some amends.
What, specifically, could Mozilla do better?
Mozilla could be more clear. Right now, there are times when things just get lost — you had an amazing conversation and then you hear nothing — not even a yes or a no — so you’re hanging in limbo. I feel like communication and transparency is the responsibility of a larger organization, when engaging with independent practitioners or smaller studios or smaller practices, because any project takes up a lot more of the resources of individuals or smaller entities. Even just an awareness of this difference is important for a large organization, and specifically for Mozilla. I don’t think Mozilla has the stereotypical corporate mindset of, “Forget it all. Forget them all.” I definitely don’t think the disconnect arises from that, but rather from larger organizations having interests and people spread across many different areas and geographies.
If you’ve had a great conversation with an individual or a small organization, and then, as a member of the Mozilla team, you go back and see that these ideas cannot be implemented any time in the next six months to a year, it’s important to let those people know. I know that if it’s an idea that excites me, I’m going to be thinking about it — sending emails. When I hear nothing back, I begin to feel discouraged about the idea itself, which is quite a shame.
Thank you. In these conversations, it’s important to gather specific examples like this. We’re collecting these type of stories from across the Mozilla network. How might these stories be useful to you, if at all?
I am a huge believer in stories. In fact, as a studio, we’ve been actively playing with the idea of storytelling with our own blog. We make books which bring together viewpoints and stories from many of our partners. I’ve always strongly believed in stories and I feel like it’s one of the most powerful tools for inspiration and affecting change and influencing others. I’m excited to see what will come out of the StoryEngine project. The range of people that you’re going to be talking to, both geographically and the kind of work they do, and also, on a slightly more practical level — how all of those come together on a platform and how different sorts of audiences can make sense of this diversity of stories and how the information architecture can provide learning experiences.
That’s a super-helpful answer. Finally, do you have any questions for me?
I would only ask about the nature of the other people participating. I would assume that there are some like me, who are not so closely associated with Mozilla — as well as those in the volunteer network — but what is the range? Who are other people like me that you might be talking to?
Some participants are fellows in the open science, open web, or journalism programs. Others are long-time volunteers with the Mozilla Foundation who might have also had some paid engagements or participated in internships. Others are people from the Hive networks. If you’re asking more specifically about people who are like yourself, I would have to go back and think about that a little more.
No, that’s all right. I was just curious.
If you think of something later, feel free to connect back. I want to create a feedback loop, and I believe those insights are really important as Mozilla builds out the network and advances theories of change and makes strategic decisions.
I’m sending you a link on Skype to a blog post that I wrote in June, after working collaboratively with Jon and Michelle, that better articulates the idea about how our values match those of Mozilla. It’s a five-minute read.
That’s exactly what we’re looking for. I’m very excited to read it. One of the trends I see emerging from these interviews is the important of values. Thank you for your time.