Green Design and Bamboo Handicrafts: A Scenario for Research and Action in the Asian Region

Ranjan, M P is the Head, NID Centre for Bamboo Initiatives as well as a Designer and Faculty member at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. At NID, he has been responsible for the creation and conduct of numerous courses dealing with Design Methodology, Product and Furniture Design and Digital Design. He has conducted research in many areas of Design Pedagogy, Industrial and Craft Design and on the role of design in various sectors of the Indian economy. Besides publishing several papers on design and craft he has edited numerous volumes of NID publications and a major book titled “Bamboo and Cane Crafts of Northeast India” (1986) and a CD-ROM titled “Bamboo Boards and Beyond” (2001) which contains papers and reports on bamboo and on design. Involved with the creation of the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design at Jaipur, he acted as its Director in the formative stages. He helped redefine the Bamboo & Cane Development Institute, Agartala and set up the programmes to establish the new format. He has recently co-edited a major publication “Handmade in India” He is an advisor to many State and Central Government Ministries in formulating strategies for the future use of bamboo and design.

April 2010, Craft Revival Trust
Asia has the world’s largest resource of bamboo plants and an enormous resource of skills of working with bamboo for a variety of purposes. Rapid changes in the region’s economy is rapidly changing the way people of this region live, thereby leading to a loss of knowledge that is inherent in the Bamboo Culture that has developed over one million years of experience. Research initiative is urgently required to study and document what exists today before this enormous knowledge base disappears forever. Such a research will need a higher purpose to be coordinated and meaningful. Sustainable development that is eco-friendly is the premise that the new Bamboo Culture can serve the future development of the people of this region. New methodologies are needed to coordinate the research of a large variety of scientific disciplines and systems design and green design are suggested as a framework for this coordinated initiative. The research strategy and specific research and development initiatives have been outlined along with a preliminary identification of the various disciplines that need to be mobilised in a coordinated manner. The emerging sophisticated information technology tools need to be used to ensure effective networking and assimilation of knowledge resources that are critical for the success of this initiative. Also needed are the vast experience and knowledge in managing such an effort that would necessarily involve very large numbers of local collaborators in a cooperative format solving local problems while drawing on the global database of the new bamboo culture. Bamboo as a cultivated renewable material offers an immense opportunity to develop a sustainable future for mankind.

The Challenge
Asia is the world’s store-house of bamboo resources and an incredibly intricate and massive traditional knowledge base about bamboo utilization. This knowledge resides in the minds and hands of the local populations of the Asian region. I call this knowledge base the Bamboo Culture where a vast repertoire of techniques and know-how is retained by the living communities in the villages and forests of Asia. This bamboo culture zone of Asia extends from central India in the west, all the way, to Japan in the far east, from China and Vietnam in the north to Indonesia and the Philippines in the south. This incidentally is also the region that is expected to face explosive and rapid economic development in the next ten years with the emerging ‘Asian Tigers’ fuelling phenomenal growth rates in their respective economies. Such a rapid growth is also a major threat to the very survival of the bamboo culture that has survived and has been nurtured, consolidated and refined over the past one million years. We stand to lose all this forever if urgent action is not taken in a coordinated and integrated manner across the nations of the Asian region. The action needed is international and of the magnitude that was seen when the monuments of the Nile valley were to be saved from certain destruction after the building of the Aswan dam. Perhaps my mind is yet not able to grasp the magnitude of this impending disaster, which I shall leave to all of you to decide.

I believe that bamboo has a major role to play in the future of mankind’s journey into the next millennium. Of the over 1200 species identified around the world, more than 60% of these are found in Asia. Hence East and Southeast Asia accounts for the maximum diversity of the worlds bamboo resources. Similarly, bamboo is understood in all its subtle variations by the populations of this region, which is quite unlike other regions which tend to use a very few local species in any given region or state. Bamboo as a plant has been studied by botanists and forest rangers for the scientific classification and administration of this resource. Bamboo as an ethnographic material has been studied by anthropologists and ethnographers as part of their larger studies conducted for the purpose of understanding culture. However we need to look afresh at our bamboo resources from an integrated standpoint so that we can use this knowledge for the various development initiatives that can be sustained with the proper use of this fantastic material. Bamboo as a modern material for the production of houses, agricultural tools, domestic products and a wide range of yet to be discovered uses offers an enormous challenge for all of us, particularly for the designers and architects as well as artists and engineers who wish to work with this material.

As a renewable resource that is potentially infinite, bamboo must be used in a sensitive and sustainable way to continue to serve human needs in the years to come. I have outlined some of these ideas earlier in a paper titled “Ecology and Design; Lessons from the Bamboo Culture”. I will elaborate below some of the key tasks that need to be taken up urgently. However before I propose specific directions for action and research I would like to define some of the key concepts associated with my understanding of the terms Green Design and Bamboo Handicrafts. Both these issues were explored in some depth at the National Institute of Design during client sponsored projects undertaken there. Firstly I will deal with our ideas on what is handicraft in the context of a developing economy and the role that this definition can have in effecting much needed change in the lives of large populations who are today barely able to keep themselves above the poverty line. Secondly I will explore the emerging concepts of Green Design and link these two key concepts to the role that bamboo can play in the emancipation of their needs. These two concepts bring about a close link between the local populations, their use of the bamboo resources and the potential for beneficial effect on the environment in general.

Redefining the term “Handicrafts”
While the problems of the craft sector in Asia are manifold it also represents a major area of opportunity for development planning in the scenario of the scanty financial resources available in the local economy for such a wide-spread development initiative. The existing handicrafts sector has massive resources of fine skills and technical know-how which in some cases are products of centuries of evolution and are still active in various parts around the region. Thus the handicrafts sector as an enormous source of employment, particularly self-employment, for a vast number of people who are otherwise involved in agricultural activities, this represents an opportunity that cannot be ignored. In many areas, production of handicrafts is the sole sources of income for the communities for whom it is the only source of sustenance.

Traditionally, such handicrafts producers dealt solely with local markets with which they had direct links through contact with the consumer, be it a bazaar buyer or a local patron. However, with the vast economic changes that have been taking place, most of these crafts are facing a very bleak scenario by being marginalised by a variety of industrial products, squeezing traditional markets or the margins generated by their endeavour. Several efforts have been made by marketing and development organisations to explore new markets for these traditional craft products in their efforts to bring stability and prosperity to the local economies.

It should be understood here that the terms “Handicrafts and Crafts” are used in a very specific sense to mean those activities that deal with the conversion of specific materials into products, using primarily hand skills with simple tools and employing the local traditional wisdom of craft processes. In this case we are specifically addressing the use of bamboo, a major raw material, that is abundantly available locally in most of the regions of Asia. Such activities usually form a core economic activity of a community of people called “craftsmen”. The emphasis here is definitely not on “Art ” although a very high level of aesthetic sensibility forms an inherent part of our definition of craft along with a host of other factors that constitute the matrix. This being an economic activity that is exposed and influenced by all the competitive pressures of a dynamically shifting market place, our new generation of craftsmen would necessarily have to depend increasingly on high quality market intelligence and strategies designed to be pro-active, particularly while dealing with remote and export markets. Their ability and responsiveness to such changing needs is adversely affected by the generally low level of education that is today available to the average craftsmen. It is further restricted by the acute absence of capital and the lack of a free flow of knowledge about the competitive shifts that are constantly taking place in this information centred world. While the “Know-How” (How-to-make things-knowledge & skills) exists abundantly in the crafts sector there is a severe shortfall in the “Know-What” (what-to-make-strategies & designs) that curtails the ability of crafts communities to survive intense competition or, better still, develop value-added solutions in a complex economic and social matrix in which they exist.

In a recent feasibility report prepared by the author for the Government of Rajasthan (India) a new institutional framework has been proposed to address these very same issues and to find sustainable solutions for these problems. This Institute’s research will also contribute to new development in the “Know-How” and “Know-What” areas of technology, design and management that can advance the state-of-the-art in the crafts sector on a professional basis. Such institutes need to be given supports to enable them to address a larger agenda to include the needs of Asian handicrafts with particular reference to the living Bamboo Culture of the region. Other organisations need to be identified to network the ongoing research and market development efforts that are critical for the development of an interactive and alert community of researchers and beneficiaries in order to realise the development objectives outlined here.

What is Green Design?
With increasing environmental consciousness, the practice and teaching of design is undergoing remarkable changes. Systems Design methodologies have for some time been explored from various perspectives by designers and others and in recent years there has been a resurgence of public interest in environmental issues and in the pollution of our environment. Consumer protection lobbies have further reinforced the awareness of corporate bodies to the need for an eco-friendly approach to doing business which strikes at the very roots of the organizations corporate vision and business purpose. Where this change is not spontaneously forthcoming from the leaders of industry, suitable legislation has been hammered out in the various regions to reign in the blatant misuse of the environment for short term goals.

The emerging eco-conscious designer is charged with the responsibility of not only solving the immediate problems at hand but to also to take cognizance of and to resolve the long term impact of contemporary design decisions. This means that the designer must use a systematic design methodology and involve a host of specialist consultants and collaborators so that the complex web of factors that influence each problem are adequately addressed before solutions are offered for each. There is a particular emphasis on the close interaction with communities of users in the design process along with the subjugation of the designer ego to the needs and responses of the user groups in selecting design solutions from amongst a host of design alternatives generated in the process of discovering and implementing appropriate solutions. These solutions would necessarily undergo a rigorous process of user evaluation and approval. Today designers are increasingly incorporating user evaluations as an integral part of their design processes that is the hallmark of the green design movement. New criteria for evaluation include the impact of design decisions on the environment that influence at a very deep level the choice of materials and technology, the kind of application that is benign to the environment, the energy consumed in the process entire life-cycle of the product or system and these decisions are not determined solely by short term profits derived from the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources.

This methodology presumes that the design teams adopting such processes require a rich resource of knowledge about materials, processes of manufacture and use as well as the domain of the user and the long term impact on the environment from such use. Traditional societies of Asia have already discovered many of these intricately linked parameters and innovated durable responses to these factors in the form of their traditional products and systems used in their day to day activities. It is this knowledge resource that can form the backbone of the proposed development initiative.

Bamboo: The Research Agenda
We need to urgently initiate a massive research initiative to study and document the bamboo culture of Asia. Keeping a pattern discovering methodology as the focus of the study, and the discovery of key operational principles as the overarching objective, the other areas of knowledge need to be correlated and systematically interwoven to map the boundaries of the knowledge base that I prefer to call the New Bamboo Culture. Some of these are listed below, and would naturally be elaborated with the intervention of others from a variety of special disciplines. All these research tasks must be closely coordinated and will be interdependent in many ways. New technologies of communication permit a great degree of interaction between remotely located research groups and the benefits of such an ongoing interaction must be integrated into the very conception of this research initiative. Unless the directions and methodologies of the various participating groups are carefully intermeshed the real benefits of such an effort will not be realised. Hence we need to develop a common overarching objective that will advice and motivate all the participants in each of their specific investigations and the lead time between field work and analysis needs to be considerably reduced so that the valuable data generated is put to immediate use by those who follow.

A. Botanical information sources related to the distribution and availability of particular bamboo species in various regions around the world. A map of the available gene pool of bamboo resources needs to be generated and preserved for the future of man. Bamboo constitutes a diverse group of plants that are greatly differentiated in physical stature and structural properties that are influenced by local climatic and environmental conditions. Knowledge relating to this variety and the suitability of each species to particular environmental conditions will be a major factor influencing the future use of bamboo. Further, comparative structural properties need to be codified and organised for easy use in the design decision making processes.

B. Agricultural information relating to propagation, cultivation, care and harvesting and post harvest processing techniques for bamboos suitable for mechanical and structural applications need to be developed and disseminated. These would include areas of biotechnology explorations. The anomalous and often mystical flowering of bamboo species over very long cycles of gestation has been a major bottleneck in past researches. However recent researches in genetic engineering and tissue culture seem to suggest potential solutions to the problems relating to the sustained regeneration of species suitable to the task and the locations in which they are found.

C. Mechanical engineering data relating to particular species of bamboo with reference to physical characteristics of culms and other parts that could be used for structural applications as understood by local populations of Asia needs to be studied and generated. The variables would include properties influenced by the age at harvest, part of culm and sub-parts of internodes used, species vs environmental conditions in which it grows as well as any changes induced by post-harvest practices. Mechanical properties of each species in respect to a minimum set of variables need to be experimentally verified to generate a database that can be interpreted by the heuristic processes used by designers and craftsmen and not as mere statistical data. The tacit knowledge of local craftsmen need to be discovered and articulated in the form of a suitable database that can be used effectively. Some of these insights will be region specific while other principles discovered in this process will have universal application.

D. Information sources related to structural, mechanical and physical properties of bamboo of various species primarily focussed on test data generated in laboratories and field situations needs to be linked to the above field data to provide a direction for future research as well as to confirm and reinforce the findings of the field studies. Building and constructional codes as well as mechanical engineering data sheets would need to be generated and disseminated to re-establish the status of bamboo as an important resource for mankind.

E. Information sources relating to the diverse structural utilisation of bamboos in different cultures and geographic regions particularly with reference to the variety of interpretation of structural form as a result of cultural differentiation needs to be studied. This is perhaps the most urgently needed research as the sources sustaining this knowledge base are being rapidly eroded by contemporary education and as a result of the social and economic upheavals of the information age. Various cultures have interpreted the same species of bamboo in subtle ways that reflect and preserve their unique identity. Such differentiation offers an enormous opportunity to discover the interrelationship between cultural forces and technological factors that is critical for the development of new products that will find acceptance in those cultures.

F. Experimental data relating to contemporary explorations into utilisation of bamboo in structural and product design applications need to be generated by conducting numerous design and development projects, each of which would create new interpretations for the application of the enormous bamboo resources that are available. These would include the creative re-interpretation of potential applications in the light of new technological insights developed in diverse fields such as structures, manufacturing and organisation. The developments in the area of composite materials could transform the manner in which bamboo is perceived as a potential engineering material. Bamboo is nature’s marvellous composite material that needs to be reappraised in the light of developments in carbon fibre composites. Numerous such development projects are required to develop a large bank of applications that cover many needs of users both local and for the export markets.

G. Information sources related to techniques, processes and tools/equipment used for the processing and conversion of bamboos for structural applications. New and improved tools would result from a systematic study in this area. Tests of existing tools for efficiency and precision would enable the development of suitable guidelines for good practices in the felling, conversion and the manufacture of structures and artefacts from bamboo in a sensitive and effective manner. Materials can be used and transformed with brute force technology but they can also be manipulated with a deep understanding and with a fine sense of aesthetic and artistic interpretation that can elevate any material from the prosaic to the sublime. Hence it is not only a gross type data that is needed here but a very fine appreciation of the material and its contextual manipulation possibilities. Most ethnic cultures have very fine examples of such highly refined interpretations of material and form.

H. Principles of structure and morphological characteristics of structural form that show potential for application in bamboo need to be developed. These would include principles of lightweight architecture and micro-mechanical structures that cover product scale applications. These structural principles can help understanding the new potentials of bamboo as a structural material in a cost effective manner. New advances in structural engineering have made possible the production of extremely light weight structures for a variety of applications from housing to hang-gliding. Experiments with bamboo would open up a vast range of potential applications that have hitherto escaped attention.

I. Materials akin to bamboo such as canes, rattan and a vast range of grasses and leaves as well as other plant materials could be put to effective and sensible use once again in the search for man’s harmonious existence with nature. This checklist could provide the agenda for a coordinated research effort that needs to be supported and sustained to generate the awareness and knowledge needed to realise the promise that bamboo holds for the future of man. This will be a beneficial side effect of the proposed initiative with bamboo and the network of research efforts will open up new and interesting questions to be explored in the future.

J. Human experiences in the setting up and the sustained conduct of decentralised cooperative societies that have been practised in several cultures need to be reevaluated in the context of a global information society to explore new and sustainable forms of ecologically responsible behavior. This combined with the messages embedded in the Bamboo Culture promise to hold a vital significance for the environmentally friendly use of the available resources. Cooperative agricultural practices in India and China have shown the benefits of this format of development. Much of this know-how needs to be transferred to the cultivation and utilisation of local bamboo resources by local communities who willingly collaborate to achieve sustainable results. The linking of this development to the market economy is essential for the programme to be sustainable to any meaningful extent. The success of experiments with the cooperative production and use of milk products and agricultural crops can be adopted for the extensive use of bamboo to meet the needs of local populations and for the development of local economies based on an active export trade.

K. Design and development projects with specific objectives need to be undertaken under the framework of the green design initiative so that a body of experience can be built that will provide benchmarks to evaluate the progress of the entire development initiative from time to time. It is in the implementation of such projects that all the knowledge available can be put to use and these projects will also provide the push needed in the other areas of research. Most of these projects will deal largely with pressing problems of a local nature while some could focus on the development of commercial applications for the export economy.

Each of these core areas need to be elaborated and articulated as action plans with the participation of those who are both able and willing to embark on this major initiative. I hope this proposal will be debated vigorously by all the participants leading to an immediate formulation and adoption of a resolution and an action plans at the global, national and sectoral levels at which action is urgently needed. For this initiative to bear fruit it is imperative that close coordination be maintained between all the distributed research groups. Advanced communications solutions can keep researchers in constant contact as the need is to reduce cycle time between primary field research and the distributed and simultaneous secondary and tertiary analysis and research. This way several cross-disciplinary collaborations can be initiated and sustained across the region of Asia to reveal a vast range of knowledge resources and to develop a critical and contemporary appreciation of bamboo as a resource of the future. Computer based networks make such a conception both feasible and desirable with all the researchers having access to each other in a suitably structured manner, perhaps on the Internet. The time is ripe for action and this paper is a call for a coordinated thrust that can be realised in the near future.

References and Bibliography
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  2. M P Ranjan; “Ecology and Design: Lessons from the Bamboo Culture”, keynote address at the International Bamboo Cultural Forum, Oita November 1991 & subsequently published in Japanese in Asian Cultures’ Quarterly Magazine AF no. 65, 1992, The Asian Club Foundation, Tokyo. pp 60 – 63

  3. Robert Austin, Dana Levy & Koichiro Ueda; Bamboo, John Weatherhill Inc., New York, 1985 (tenth printing ) (1970)

  4. G N Buoghton; “CIB-W18B Activities Towards a Structural Design Code for Bamboo” in Bamboos: Current Research, proceedings of International Bamboo Workshop, Cochin, 1988, Eds. I V Ramanuja Rao, G Gnanaharan & Cherla B Sastry, Kerala Forest Research Institute, India and International Development Research Centre, Canada, 1992. pp 280 – 282

  5. Ana Cecilia Chaves & Jorge A Gutierrez; “The Costa Rican Bamboo National Project”, in Bamboos: Current Research, proceedings of International Bamboo Workshop, Cochin, 1988, Eds. I V Ramanuja Rao, G Gnanaharan & Cherla B Sastry, Kerala Forest Research Institute, India and International Development Research Centre, Canada, 1992. pp 344 - 349

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This paper has been prepared at the invitation of INBAR (International Network for Bamboo and Rattan) and IDRC (International Development Research Centre, Canada) to be presented at the Vth International Bamboo Workshop, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia, 19-22 June, 1995 organized by the Environmental Bamboo Foundation, Indonesia.

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