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Rooting for sustainability

At the World Bamboo Congress held in Korea this year, Rebecca Reubens spoke about bamboo’s potential for holistic sustainability through design.

After completing a programme at the National Institute of Design, for seven years, Rebecca Reubens worked with INBAR, the only bamboo-centric intergovernmental institution in the world. Back home in Gujarat, a visit to the Kotwalia community was a turning point in her decision to be a sustainability designer. Reubens says, “I knew that I could opt to make pretty things any day, but I wanted my life to be more than that.” Reubens set up her design studio Rhizome, in Ahmedabad, and an NGO — Tapini Bamboo Development Centre — that sells goods through their store, Bamboo Canopy.

Bamboo requires less capital investment in farms, is renewable (it grows back in 6 to 10 years), employs a cross-section of people, and can be worked on with simple tools. At the World Bamboo Congress held in Korea this year, as one of the world brand ambassadors, Reubens spoke about bamboo’s potential for holistic sustainability through design. This November, she will be presented the ‘50 Most Influential Leaders’ citation at the India Sustainability Leadership Summit to be held in Maharashtra.

Excerpts from an interview:

How has the World Bamboo Conference given you new directions?

Every four years, there is a World Bamboo Congress that I attend regularly. Initially, it was an eye-opener because I got to see how countries across the world are working with bamboo: Latin Americans make remarkable structures, in Indonesia and Vietnam bamboo is mainstream culture, and the Chinese have streamlined its production. All this is inspiring and interesting. It’s also a mentoring experience to get on the professional network.

You believe bamboo and poverty co-exist. Could you elaborate?

Wherever bamboo is available in plenty, people naturally gravitate towards it, as it is easy to process. It is ironic that bamboo and poverty are synonymous and it is perceived as a low-cost material. On the contrary, in Indonesia and Japan, bamboo is respected as a material. It’s their first choice not because it is easy, but because they see it as a huge opportunity to create, process and sell. Technology has acted in favour of making bamboo products that fit growing trends. This has helped change bamboo’s low-cost, low-quality image, helping it gain acceptance into mainstream markets. From the sustainability angle, however, there is criticism for these innovations.

Why does the craft sector require a joint co-innovation strategy, different from other industrial set-ups?

In India, with innovation bases in our NIDs and IITs, the designer is poised to develop value-added products along with labour and resources. Earlier, we were innovating with industrial materials as that was what we were taught. Now, as we are shifting to crafts, we find very few have worked with these materials. Here, the craftsperson is the technologist critical to the innovation process, but missing from the whole chain.

How does your Rhizome chart aid in designing for sustainability?

Many designers are not aware of how to quantify the various factors that influence a solution. The Rhizome approach that I have developed guides you through the design phase. You see how anything you do affects many other factors. Even if you do not have the capacity to rethink, this is there like a checklist to make sure you have factored all aspects. The chart could tell you how you will benefit economically or culturally, if you use less material.

For example, when we were working in Vietnam with a group making handmade paper from the bark of a tree, we were looking at developing products for them to make for a living. When we actually took stock of the situation, there were not enough trees. We realised that if we increased output to generate more paper, we would not be able to sustain the forest; children play there and the forest is integral to community life. Instead of product development, we actually ended up value-adding to the product they already made. We cut out holes from the paper and embroidered a buttonhole stitch to make a high-end paper product. The buyer could shape the paper into a lot of things. This is inclusive design, where the user is also involved.

How did your Vietnam experience shape your sustainability vision for India?

Vietnam does not have formal design institutions and I was hired as an overseas design consultant from India. Craft is their strong point and I developed the sustainability assessment and branding scheme for the handicraft sector, which is being implemented at the national level by the Vietnamese National State. Sustainability means people not polluting water while doing craft. Systems stay clean.

Making money and making a change do not need to be mutually exclusive — this is what India needs to realise and implement. Our way of development needs to be more mindful. This doesn’t mean that we will be losing, but in fact, we will be gaining because we won’t develop and clean up later.

The writer is a city-based writer and visualiser. She studied furniture design at NID and is a graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 2:20:59 PM |

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