Research in Play 1 – talk by Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram

Be it mohalla sabhas or, community participation is in. But the question emerges, who can take part in these conversations, who does not, and what about those who cannot?

The idea of citizen engagement rests on the idea of citizen – someone who enjoys legitimacy, by having certain rights and responsibilities. This legitimacy is linked to legal sanction too – when you go to vote you have an id-card, something that proclaims your right to have your finger inked.

What about those who don’t have ration cards because they do not have a home or they live in spaces that are not valid in the eyes of law? How can they too be citizens, how can they too participate in these discussions of policy and law that affect their lives?

DSC04724Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk on ‘Community participation: panacea or pipe dream’ spurred the audience to debate these questions. She is a visiting postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and is currently in India on a senior fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies for her project ‘Can the urban poor speak’. Her fieldwork in four non-notified slums in Delhi and slums in Bangalore focused on how people in the slums fight for certain services such as sanitation, and how community participation is used in different ways to pressure and be heard in order to achieve those services.


Even though for conceptual ease, slums are seen as a monolithic category, if you take into account the specifics related to services such as sanitation and water and land tenure, there are many differences between Delhi and Bangalore.

For instance in one slum researched by Dr. Soundarya, women in the slum faced safety issues caused by young men in their own slum. On the other hand, during conversations we had with women’s activists researching for the Convers(t)ation project, we were told that in slums in Bangalore, there is a sense of protecting ‘our women’. In both the cases, there is a patriarchal culture at play but in different ways. And understanding those differences becomes crucial in understanding the context – something that can eventually help in creating meaningful policy.

Dr. Soundarya Chidambaram’s talk was part of the ‘Research in Play’ series at FoV, where we host talks, discussions, and workshops at the intersection of theory and practice.

Is there an Indian way of thinking? Part 1

In a conversation recently, we were discussing about technology in the Indian context. Does context matter? Why wouldn’t technology designed and developed elsewhere fit here too? Don’t people’s minds work the same way everywhere? Is human cognition then like classical physics – it doesn’t matter whether Newton sat in Kammanahalli or Kuala Lumpur, the mango would still land on his head. Or is human cognition something that’s also shaped by the context we live in?

A North American professor who studied ‘human thought’, the underlying assumption being that there is something universal called human thought was challenged by his Chinese student who said, you think in lines and I think in circles. This led the professor, Richard Nisbett to examine how culture and context influences thought, and it is this journey that is captured in ‘Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.’

Nisbett starts by explaining the philosophical roots of different ideas and concepts that shape thought in Asian and Western societies, and one of the key differences is the focus on the individual in Western societies.

What’s interesting is the way Nisbett accounts for the focus on the individual, by invoking reduction. According to Nisbett, the Greeks ‘invented’ nature. He explains that the Greeks said anything that’s outside of you is nature, and in doing so they clearly drew boundaries between you and nature. Thus you could ‘study’ nature as it is outside of you and you are not connected to it, you cannot influence the study in any way, the philosophical basis of classical science.

Nisbett contrasts Aristotle and Confucius to bring out the differences between the two cultures. The interconnectedness that it is an integral part of the Confucian culture and how it differs from the Greek culture that relies on isolating objects and studying them in that isolation is brought out through different examples. It gets more interesting when Nisbett shows how reduction versus interconnectedness starts affecting other aspects, including language, attention and perception, causal inference, science and mathematics, organization of knowledge, and reasoning. Language, attention and perception, causal inference, science and mathematics, organization of knowledge, and reasoning – all these different threads are themselves interconnected, and in the book Nisbett illustrates these differences using examples, and drawing from firsthand research.


For instance, when it comes to language, apparently in Japanese the word for “I” is rarely used. “I” is a trans-contextual idea of self. It does not change whether you are talking to your parents or to your lover. On the other hand, in Japanese the words used to refer to one’s own self depend on the context. Similarly, consider the level of abstraction. In Chinese, instead of saying the object is far, you would say it is like viewing a fire from across the river. Instead of white, you would say like a rabbit’s fur or a swan’s wing.

By teasing out different threads, Nisbett’s book ends on a hopeful note, with a call for convergence — a blending of Western and Asian ways of thought, a best of both worlds vision of things to come.

In the introduction, Nisbett acknowledges that the word ‘Asian’ contains within it a host of different cultures, and that a broadbrush to interpret Asian in a particular way was used in the book. In some sense it is almost recursive — how much you abstract out of a geographical context.

In the spirit of Nisbett’s book, what if we were to push that abstraction and unpack different layers of what it is to be ‘Asian’. For instance,what would Nisbett’s book be like if the Indian context was taken into account?

We plan to explore that in the next blogposts.

What is a Smart City?

The Government of India has recently launched major initiatives for building a large number of smart cities all around the country. Discussions on smart cities in India are generating a lot of debate around what it means to be a smart city.

During such discussions citizens are represented as residents who live in the city, perform various activities and are passive recipients of the city’s services. The interactions between them and the city is often reduced to an economical or a transactional one, without acknowledging the complexity of the relationship. Everyone is assumed to be a homogeneous ‘user’, and thus it becomes easy for us to imagine new cities with infrastructure, autonomous and automatic systems, regional plans, lots of glass and sensors, landscaped gardens, and various portrayals one is familiar through brochures. We are then led to estimate and imagine how existing systems would operate better by reducing the amount of time, costs, size, complexity, etc. In the race to make cities more “efficient”, we have not considered the implications of working towards a narrow definition of “efficiency”.

We fail to take into account the diversity around us, despite the popular cliché quoted about India as a highly diverse country with a diverse set of cultures, languages, and aspirations. We are diverse in terms of scale of urbanisation,  geographic size, economy and population. We also face inequality across the dimensions of economics, social stratification, and gender.

The current rhetoric on smart cities lack discussions on one or more of the above factors. Furthermore, the question of inequality and hence isolation of the poor from the city’s services is one of the problems facing established smart cities.

As we are poised at the cusp of establishing smart cities in India, we are presented with a unique opportunity. We can collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city for the Indian context, and build on that conception to design smart cities for different local Indian contexts.

What we then need is a process to elicit from citizens what their requirements and aspirations are for a smart city, which will then give us the base to design the appropriate city for a given location in the country. We may be able to use this method beyond India to define smart cities in other parts of the world or to evaluate existing ones.

Anthony Townsend in his book, Smart Cities, envisions a smart city where citizens if they wish are able to participate in the defining, design and governing of their city. What we call for are technologies that create processes that enable citizens to participate meaningfully in their city’s future.

The question then is, how do we collectively imagine what it means to be a smart city in the Indian context?

At Fields of View, we are designing initiatives for citizens to participate in defining, designing, and governing their city.

In an effort to understand how the current discourse on smart cities has shaped our understanding on Smart Cities, we have created a quick survey. The aim is to understand how we visualize a smart city and if we have a certain visual definition of the smart cities we would like to live in.

Please consider taking the survey here.

To know more, mail us at info at


  1. Townsend, A. M. (2013). Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. WW Norton & Company.

MediaLAB and Fields of View, telepresence at Cisco

Suit up! On the 17th of October we went for a little trip to the city… the day of the telepresence call with the MediaLAB Amsterdam.

As we might have told you already, the project we are working on is a mirrored project, meaning our team started out with the same research question/topic as the team in the MediaLAB Amsterdam: Women’s Safety in Public Space. Our main funder, Cisco, facilitates high-end, high-tech, monthly meetings to showcase our findings in this cross-cultural project. Our weekly Skype meetings are nothing compared to this state-of-the-art, almost immersive experience, diminishing distance as the office in Amsterdam and Bangalore are real-time connected . Look at this!



This meeting was, for us, the first formal meeting for this project. We looked forward to it. We prepared a little presentation summing up what findings we had so far. In this blog post we will recap what we told in that presentation at Cisco. Although our project at this moment has taken some steps further, we didn’t want you to miss this. These are descriptions of the path we followed, people we spoke to, decisions we made, things we’ve learned and our future plans (approximately one month ago). Because we made a very simplistic presentation in Prezi, which you can find here, I will add a little more flesh to this skeletal structure. I will give you four key decision points.

When we got introduced to this project roughly 4 months ago, it was called the ‘Panic Button’ project. The idea originated in one of the classes a professor here gave. The conversation was about a device, that would be unobtrusive, easily wearable and maybe even fashionable. The idea of a device to use in case of panic was born.

When we arrived in the end of August, we had a lot of talks about what this project was actually all about. For starters we looked at the name, ‘Panic Button’, which was chosen as a temporary name. The main problem for us with this name was that it placed a strong accent on ‘panic’; something we wished to dismiss or avoid. Hence, a name that would imply the avoidance or removal of panic in a hazardous situation seemed better. “What about ‘Unpanic’? –Yes, sounds alright, let us take that for now.”

Panic Unpanic-01

It was soon after this when our colleague, sociologist and gender expert Dr. Niveditha Menon sent us an interesting mail. She pointed out that with using the name ‘Unpanic’, we actually tell the users, in this and most other cases women, that they should ‘unpanic’. They should not be in panic, what ever happens to them. Or worse, they should not be overacting.

[…] if we are telling women NOT to panic we are telling them two things – One, that they do panic (which they do not), and that thy ought not to panic (why not? the fear is real enough). […] we are not in any position to tell woman NOT to panic, because frankly, do we have any right to? – Niveditha Menon

Here we were, working on a project with no name. We had to have something… so we started from scratch, again. What do we want to accomplish? What do we want to improve, help or solve? Is our problem even solvable? And if so, is there any change that would happen within our time here, a limited semester. We began blowing up our initial research question and deconstructed it.

The next topic of discussion regarding our project was whether or not we would be making a device. The initial plan, the panic button, would’ve been a device to be used in cases of panic, violence and/or harassment. We would not be touching the core or the cause of the problem by making such a device. In Dutch we have this beautiful saying: ‘It is like mopping the floor while the tap is still running’. The problem is rooted deeper and by making a reactive device we would not address the core problem. Another saying seems appropriate: prevention is better than cure. Though, preventing harassment would require an attitudinal or behavioural change, and how were we going to achieve such a complex task. We felt that we needed to split the project in different parts.

After thinking about what we wanted and needed, we started to draw it out. In the blog post “Recipe for curry” we wrote about how we then structured and prioritized our further research. You can read it again here if you like.Designbrief #1


As we floated ideas freely, we concluded that we were not going to find a solution. We cannot solve this problem or make it disappear. This is not being pessimistic, solely realistic. Though, it’s not a reason to be disappointed or demotivated. We found that, even if we were not working towards a future without violence or sexual harassment, we could still be doing a meaningful project. We thought about it in a ‘two steps forward- one step back’ way. It is not that women don’t have rights here, because they do. They work, they vote, they do pretty much everything men do. Still, women are being restricted because they are not considered equal to men. It feels like new canals have been dug, but some boats still take the old route. It always takes time for changes to be accepted. In addition, every change brings about new sets of obstacles in its wake. It is like a wave movement, cyclical. Inspired by the feminist waves of women’s emancipation, we saw our project as contributing towards the crest of the next wave. Knowing we won’t make much change, if even any, our vision is to work on that next waveThe project would from now on be referred to as the ‘Next Wave’ project.

Unpanic- Next Wave logo

With our three approaches we went to see professionals and experts in the field. We asked them for feedback, tips&tricks and experiences. We are blessed with the availability of people who have been working in the field of gender, human- and women’s rights and activist-groups for years. How nice it was, therefore, to see that their way of thinking about this subject echoed our views. They liked the path we had walked thus far, but there was still a lot to do. After extensive discussions and almost personal lectures we mapped out the different aspects of this social crisis and how they were interconnected. Here is the map.


Frame 1

Now it was time to unite the knowledge we gained so far and start thinking about the research questions in each of the three approaches. The research questions would determine the choices we made. Here they are.

From safety to freedom, mobility, visibility and self-hood

Short term:
How can we facilitate informal reporting of sexual harassment in a physical space while ensuring institutional linkages?

Long term:
How can we design a tool for Indian men to interpret themselves, in a non-threatening way, so the frame shifts from entitlement to consciousness of power structures?

How can we design an online platform for organizations and a general audience, on organizations working to promote freedom of women?

The span of our plans is huge. We know that. We are not sure how far we will go, but we found it too difficult to narrow down our scope. For now, we are focusing on the short-term project, since this is the most feasible to accomplish within our stay.

Keep you posted!


Understanding the complexity of energy systems with a simulation game

This post is by Dr. Émile Chappin, Assistant Professor of Energy & Industry, Delft University of Technology, and a Visiting Researcher at Fields of View. Dr. Chappin worked with us on developing a simulation game to understand to complexity of energy systems. These are his thoughts about the complexity of the sector and how a simulation game helps in understanding it.


Vibrant Electronics City sets the scene for three weeks of intensive research on serious gaming. We are driven by the need for stability and affordability of our energy supply – they are essential for flourishing societies. That’s the reason to deal with the nitty-gritty of typical European electricity markets in which billions of Rupees or Euros are at stake but where megawatts and megawatthours are easily mixed up. The key is not only in the details: electricity markets are complex systems, of which the performance is the result of the transactions in the market, the responses to the influences from outside, such as (proposed) policies, the evolving institutions and rational or irrational expectations.


This is where we start: how can we really learn to understand the essential workings of this system? The pure nature of complexity tells us that we can’t, really. But that’s not a satisfactory answer. We should do something that helps us – students, researchers, policy makers and companies – to gain better understanding of these systems. We need to start learning how we can somehow manage the system as a whole throughout the coming decades. Not in the classical sense of management, which presumes that some form of direct control is possible. We need to find new ways of shaping the system in a (more) desired direction. How? Join us in the world of simulation games!

We would like to share four insights we learnt from complexity and developing and using simulation games and models:

  1. The notion of optimality is void. There is no perfect outcome of this system/problem. Such judgments of the system state are observer-dependent, time-dependent and cannot be predicted. One can only speak of trajectories that appear desirable or not, given a set of strong assumptions, a time-frame, a set of objectives and a delineated system.

  2. Simulation and gaming should be used as tools for discussion. Because the system we’re observing is complex, any model we make and any simulation we run is definitively wrong. That, however, does not make them useless: they can be used as a digital laboratory, our laboratory in silico. By applying many modeling and simulation techniques capturing parts of the real-world system and its problems, and using those in a variety of relevant contexts, we may get a glimpse of understanding what patterns may emerge and how we can contribute in shaping the system [1]. That is the approach for TU Delft’s Energy Modeling Laboratory [2].

  3. Experience and involvement leads to deeper understanding. The complexity in the real-world system works in counterintuitive mechanisms and leads to patterns that are hard to really understand. Our experience shows that grasping some of these patterns by experiencing them in a serious game really helps to build an intuition for the consequences of the system’s complexity [1]. That in itself implies that lessons learnt – or patterns observed – may well contribute to understanding the complexity of the real world system and any effort in shaping the system accordingly. An example in our game is the understanding that ‘simple’ economic laws such as the notion of marginal cost bidding really work (at least to a certain extent). Other examples are the irrational response to soft information of future developments, the almost unbelievable developments on world markets for fuels, the wicked trade-offs between short-term profit, market share and the reliability and affordability of energy supply in the long run.

  4. Managing is the art to use the mechanisms that drive change. Understanding and exploring what the mechanisms are that drive our societal system is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Let’s consider this management that, making use of that, an art, an “attempt to bring order out of chaos” [3]. How to know what decisions matter, what actors matter and what outcomes matter? How to measure performance? How to measure change? To answer such questions, we need to bring together theory from various fields (history, engineering, multi-actor systems, complexity, economics, policy, design, etc.) and knowledge from application domains (energy, water, transport, IT).
    We hope that simulation and gaming contributes to this process. By doing so, we make the theory operational in specific domains: we ask questions such as how we can develop and maintain an affordable electricity sector which is both decarbonized and in which supply is secured. It helps us to define what change and stability really means and how we can measure it. That way we hope to find out how we may bring about changes that put our systems on a more desired trajectory. If we can manage our precious infrastructures – the backbones of our society – that may be how.

How can a three week trip to Bangalore help gaining insight in the Dutch electricity sector? Which countries – including their energy sectors – are more different than the Netherlands and India? Well… despite the fact that the Indian and the Dutch culture are fundamentally different, both societies show many communalities. Both India and the Netherlands are quite busy: at least traffic is a pain. The fraction of the Indian population that resides in Holland may not be so far apart from the fraction of Dutch people that are in India. What Indian food is, is impossible to define, as it is for Dutch food (although for different reasons). It is easy to complain about the weather – umbrellas are a requisite in your backpack. Dutch and Indians can express themselves in peculiar ways in English. Indians like chocolate and ‘stroopwafels’ as least as well as the Dutch. And… more often than not, we can meet each other in humor.

These commonalities show that the complexity of our societies does not mean we cannot try to understand and improve them. It means we need to find new ways of doing so. The mechanisms and laws probably do not work as we expect them to! There is only one way forward: dive in the deep, experience new things, debate with an open mind, challenge all assumptions, indulge in to cultural diversity, and… embrace complexity!



[1] Chappin, E. J. L. (2011). Simulating Energy Transitions, PhD thesis, TU Delft, the Netherlands.

[2] Energy Modeling Laboratory, TU Delft.

[3] Stephen Sondheim, composor and lyricist, 2005.


City Game session with Sri Kumarans Children’s Home, at IIIT-B

City Game session at IIIT-B from Fields of View on Vimeo.


We played a session of the City Game with kids of class 10 and 12 from Sri Kumarans Children’s Home, as part of IIIT-B’s excITe program. We had 40 students participating, who formed 10 groups of 4 each; and the two teachers formed the eleventh group. In this game, the students were asked to build their city by taking turns to place blocks that were representative of buildings. This was the first time we played this game with a group as large as this (42 people!).

Like most other cities, this city had markets, business places, stadiums, amusement parks, residential areas, resorts, Vidhan Soudha and a High Court. However, this city also had a solar power plants, a flyover from a residential area to an IT park, “to let” buildings, nuclear power plants and even 2 dams! The groups used the wooden blocks creatively; for example, the cricket stadium was 6-8 blocks in a circle with 4 other blocks forming the floodlights! This is in stark contrast to many other game runs where the blocks are merely indicative of a building/place/road etc.. One of the teams decided they wanted to be the government. They built the Legislative Assembly, and even passed a law! This was the first time anyone assumed a role in the game. However, none of the teams followed the law, and one of the teams even opposed the way that this particular team “decided” to be the government.

Every team except one said they would not like to live in the city that they built; the reasons mostly being lack of adequate residential areas, lack of planning and lack of other basic amenities such as hospitals and markets. The general consensus among the teams was that this was a city with a population of 2-3 lakh. One of the teams said that this city looked like an island city for tourism, with a population like the Vatican City.

Unlike other sessions of the City Game, we asked the teams to choose for a winner, based on whatever criteria they thought was important. Two teams voted for the team which took the initiative to be the government, and three teams voted for the team which took the initiative to oppose the undemocratic manner of the other team becoming the government!

All in all, a great session of the city game. I’ll stop here, the video is more explanatory!

Feminism and Me – Introductory Note on the Series

A friend of mine, Vinay, told me the other day that I might be a fake Mallu or a fake Gult, but I am a true blue Feminist. For people who work and live with me, being a feminist is one of my primary identities. Most people have come to know, perhaps a little painfully, that I don’t let things go, especially when it comes to gender, sexism, patriarchy, harassment etc.  I can be the quintessential rabid feminist, and most of the time, I am proud of it. A lot of people have asked and will continue to ask of feminists: why are we so angry? My friend, Priyanka, said it best: Because we have reason to be.


An often-quoted fact about feminism that gets a lot of publicity, but very little understanding is that feminism as an ideology and practice is very diverse. We can have radical feminists, liberal feminists, ecofeminists, third-world feminists – we come in all shapes and sizes, and it is difficult to say that there is one feminism, and one type of feminist. People often state it, but rarely examine the implications of it. The most obvious consequence of this form of diversity is that if we take a bunch of feminists together, and put them in a room – we will hate abortion, we don’t mind abortion, we want to ban prostitution, we think prostitution should be made legal, we think porn is exploitative, we think porn can be made for women, we hate capital punishment, we want rapists to be hung . . . and it can go on and on. We are a lot of things, and we believe in a lot of things. And one of the most common things that we believe in is that we ought to have our own opinions on what feminism means to us. For us, one of the fundamental tenets of feminist thought is – we define it, we recreate it, we make meaning of it in our own lives. All of us who identify as feminist define, learn, re-learn, understand, disagree, grapple with the overarching principles, ideologies, and the grand narratives of feminism, and we use this engagement to examine the world around us.


So, this series – Feminism and me – is really about my personal and professional journey of what feminism means to me. It will be my attempt to articulate why I identify with feminism, not just as an ideology, but also as a lens, as a methodology, as a tool to understand social life, social problems, and the social world. In doing so, I want to be clear that I cannot speak for feminism, or feminists in general. I can only speak of my experiences with feminist thought, action, pedagogy, and methodology. So, this series will be primarily about my experiences as a feminist in social research.