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Project: Farmers’ Innovation Center. “A Space for Positive Social Impact”
Late in November 2016, Jayesh Ganesh (co-designer) walked 100 kms across rural Nagaland in search of ingenious grassroots innovations as part of the 38th Shodhyatra. Here, he crossed paths with Sethrichem Sangtam (Founder, Better Life Foundation) at the inauguration of the make-shift Farmer’s Learning Center in Angangba Vilage. Better Life Foundation (BLF) is a Non Profit, founded in July 2009 to facilitate an education for change in the marginalised farming tribes of the region. It addresses food security issues through generation of green employment avenues that focuses also on environment sustainability. BLF’s vision is based on promoting a more productive community among the rural people of Nagaland. BLF’s primary goals are to ensure every marginalized family in their reference area can generate sufficient resources to cover children education, health-care, secure livelihood and comfortable shelter in the next five years.
A detailed study of the region and our ongoing ethnographic study has helped us understand and appreciate the importance of the Innovation Center project. Over the months, our conversations (with community leaders) grew into a more holistic vision and we arrived at the idea of an Innovation Center as the epicenter of widespread social change and how a prototype space could be sensitively and sustainably crafted. The center would be mainly used as a space for capacity building through discussion and ideation process amongst the various farming communities under the professional guidance of BLF. The key functional agenda of the center are as highlighted below.
1. Livelihood Research and Development by introducing environment friendly, alternative livelihood systems.
2. Sensitize and involve the community in promoting innovative sustainable income generating activities.
3. Promote innovative farming practices
4. Youth entrepreneurship development through land based activities and marketing of agro-products
Note on the "Design Thinking":
BLF Farmers’ Innovation Centre's design is an attempt in gathering generations of collective local wisdom and innovation in the crafts of habitation and rooting them in a physical architectural space at Angangba village in Nagaland, one of the North-Eastern states of India. The project has been planned in a way that would involve as many members of the community as possible; the construction is being orchestrated as a social process, based on participation and engagement.
The brief called for the creation of indoor space/s to hold group discussions, workshops, training sessions and community programs related to low chilling apple cultivation (an innovative agro-farming technique with focus on afforestation) which has been innovated as an environmentally sustainable alternative to the prevalent swidden/shifting cultivation”.
The brief also envisioned a gallery to showcase various local innovations and products to nurture inventiveness and promote awareness within the regional community at the grassroots level. The key mission of Better Life Foundation and its spaces will be to foster economic and environmental sustainability for the local agrarian community.
From Hearth to Heart
At the Heart of the Innovation Centre is a small platform perched precariously upon the higher reaches of the hill’s ridge. All around, the platform commands staggering panoramas of deep green valleys and dramatic skies. The slopes of this hill lie primed for the cultivation of low chilling apples. It is this platform (admeasuring 14ft X 50ft) that has been selected as the site for the Innovation Centre. Immediately next to adjacent to this platform to the South lies an existing home. The current Farmer’s Centre – built in the region’s historical spatial tradition – is organised around a central kitchen with a fireplace; the fireplace and kitchen are traditionally the most social and important of domestic spaces in the Naga household. Thus, great social significance is attributed to the Hearth.
An important philosophy of Better Life Foundation is to bring together local innovation with global enterprise for an environmentally and socially sustainable human society. From this core value was born the architectural principle ‘From Hearth to Heart’, a signifier of the importance of functionally and physically linking the existing traditional space (hearth) and the envisioned innovation lounge (heart).
Journey to a Better Life
The master plan for the Better Life Foundation Innovation Centre comprises of several functions and activities. These components are organized over the landscape of site in four journeys or experiential routes.
1. Journey of Shared Learning: Beginning at the very entrance of the site is the public drop off, a sort of town square; this space will house the entry services and indigenously designed cold storage unit. Abutted by the vertical hill face on one side, the road from the entrance to the Innovation Centre is envisioned as an educative museum space where the hill serves as a climate protected gallery to showcase local innovations through photos, posters, models and installations while doubling up as a pedestrian pathway.
2. Journey of Ecological Learning: A journey through the wild apple plantations on the hillsides and up to the model farm on the neighbouring hill emerges from the Innovation Centre itself. The motive of this journey is to bring the villagers, visitors and inhabitants in close contact with the safe and productive techniques of plantation, possibilities of environmental friendly futures and therapeutic farming.
3. Journey of Spiritual/Self Learning: All great actions begin with introspection. Being mindful of this, the Better Life Foundation Centre also invites travellers, thinkers and seekers to participate in its vision as part of this journey. The journey manifests as a series of tents that are perched over the outermost tips of the hill overlooking the vast landscape. These tents are arranged to encircle the Innovation Centre such that the beginning and end of this trail leads the user through the Heart and Hearth.
4. Journey of Social Learning: The final journey binds the individual to the society. Whether one is a villager or a visitor, this journey leads them from the Innovation Centre to the 100-seater open air amphitheatre which is carved into a natural depression in the slope. Stepped seating, weaving through wild apple tree trunks will be approached through a series of machangs that emerge at the Innovation Centre.
The four journeys capture individually the essence of Better Life Foundation’s philosophies but together they create something much more powerful – a real physical space in which the philosophy for a better life can be realised.
The innovation centre is envisaged as a collection of spaces, permeable and enclosed, formal and informal, programmed and un-programmed to host community dialogues in groups of various sizes at different occasions. The notion of space-production transcends the physical boundary of the building plinth and defines a spatial agglomeration comprising of an outdoor public realm, a rooftop machang overlooking the mountain and the apple plantation, an extended contemplating platform towards the valley with an undisrupted visual connect to the astounding mountain ranges. The ideation lounge at ground plinth is an uninterrupted flexible space (no internal partitions) that can be re-arranged into multiple appropriation of seating arrangement as per the need. The rooftop machang provides an elevated platform to have informal discussions with a mountain views all around.
The structure exhibits the indigenous knowledge in bamboo construction and the raw materiality of bamboo creates an architectural expression that appears contextually insightful. The entire structure is designed using bamboo sections of various lengths and diameters available locally in the region. The profile of the sloping roof covering the machang has a historical reference to the traditional roof form of the rural huts of the region. The geometry of the sloping roof allows covering the machang at one side and further extends over the entrance walkway to finally merge into the ground with apple plantation, thus creating a complimenting gesture with the plantation. The innovation center will be electrified by rooftop solar panels.
Inspired by the Sangtam Naga shawls of the Tuensang district, wooden clerestory will invite a meditative play of light and shadow into the indoor space of the ground floor lounge. In a bid to minimize visual barriers between the indoor and outdoor space, the façade of the Innovation Centre up to the lintel height is designed as glazed shutter windows in wooden frames expressed in slick contemporary style.
The innermost space of the lounge is envisaged as an invocation to the region’s original 16 tribes. Here will hang customized shawls of each of the tribes enclosing among themselves a space for innovation and growth which is deeply respectful of the region’s roots and culture.
Better Life Foundation is committed to develop projects of similar nature intended towards positive social impact across various villages in Nagaland through community participation.
"The Socio-Cultural process" :
BLF is building the first movement that promotes and supports innovative thinking amongst underexposed and underdeveloped agrarian communities. They are capacitating skilled farmers to be able to influence the culture and thinking of their region, and find and capacitate further farmer leaders to continue the spread of the movement. BLF is building a culture of problem-solving and innovation in isolated agrarian communities, by bringing their farmers together to discuss and solve their issues collectively through storytelling and ideation sessions. He believes that these grossly underdeveloped communities can only see sustained change when they are able to claim ownership of their development by innovating on their own towards their progress.
BLF finds community leaders and master innovators capable of setting up make-shift hubs in their own regions and facilitating and documenting story-telling sessions and ideation sessions at these hubs. With these leaders, they find potential early adopter farmers in specific regions and invites them to one innovation hub ( make shift as of now) around the region. Their acclaim and prosperity encourages other farmers to be curious enough to indulge in collective discussions and eventually in problem solving.
Of these converted farmers in one region, BLF identifies influencers and capacitates them to be the next set of master innovators that lead innovation hubs in their own regions and take on the role capacitating further farmers to do the same in further regions. Sethrichem recognises that to build a sustained culture of innovation in the farming community, finding the one-off inventor and celebrating them isn’t enough - as has been done before. It is critical that the agrarian innovators are able to recognize the need for innovative thinking in their communities and profession and champion the spread of this culture.
Our project will capacitate this socio-cultural process with a permanent physical space to promote BLF's agenda and intends to proliferate the process in various communities in a decentralised manner.
Bamboo – a sustainable and contextually better suited material – locally sourced, is the prime construction material. The structure exhibits the indigenous knowledge in bamboo construction and the raw materiality of bamboo creates an architectural expression that appears contextually insightful. The entire structure is designed using bamboo sections of various lengths and diameters available locally in the region. The profile of the sloping roof covering the machang has a historical reference to the traditional roof form of the rural huts of the region. The geometry of the sloping roof allows covering the machang at one side and further extends over the entrance walkway to finally merge into the ground with apple plantation, thus creating a complimenting gesture with the plantation. The innovation center will be electrified by rooftop solar panels.
We ensure the involvement of the local community in constructing the structure and help perpetuate and improve upon the local construction techniques. Our design for the center invokes the memories of the Naga community and is rooted in the terrains and culture of the region. We believe, when constructed, this will become a space which inspires local collaboration and further innovations in the sustainable practices of the region.